Five young people took their own lives last month. Is Hong Kong's merciless quest for academic success to blame? Shirley Zhao meets the families of these little victims.
On November 14, a 10-year-old boy wrote to himself in his diary. “I want to die,” he said. “I want to kill myself. I want to be put into jail. I want death.” When he had finished this entry, the boy jumped from the fifth floor of his apartment block to his death.
A month earlier, that same little boy, Ethan Ng, failed his Chinese examination and was duly ‘reproached’ by his parents. His music teacher also criticised him for his poor performance. A few weeks on, and those around him now suspect that it was these criticisms which caused Ethan to spiral into a deep depression, culminating in his tragic suicide. Alongside the ‘death note’ in his dairy, he also reportedly sent a fellow classmate an email that read: ‘something terrible will happen on Monday’.
Shockingly, Ethan was one of five children and teenagers aged between 10 and 16 (Primary 5 to Form 6) who committed suicide in Hong Kong during November. Two of them, including Ethan, were primary school pupils, and two (also including Ethan) committed suicide on the same day.
Joel Cheng Wai-kwan, a social worker and project officer for a school crisis support programme the Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs Association of Hong Kong, tells Time Out that each year, from September to November, a dramatic spike in teen suicide rates will occur, ‘because September is the beginning of a new semester and students face sudden pressure – and at the end of October there are many exams that generate huge pressure’.
According to Benjamin Chan Tat-sheung, deputy executive director of non-government organisation Youth Outreach, from 2005 to 2010 the suicide rate among teenagers aged 19 and under increased by 58 percent, while the suicide rate among adults steadily decreased. Research conducted last year also shows that three percent of primary school pupils have, at one stage or another in their lives, ‘considered suicide’.
One major reason for these alarming statistics, Chan says, is due to Hong Kong society’s emphasis on academic performance from an early age. “Parents and teachers, the education system, the social system, everyone sees academic performance as the only baseline of a student’s success and failure,” says Chan. “So, once they fail, they’ll think themselves useless and want to escape through either uninhibited indulgence or death.” Elsie Chien Man-hung, deputy director of Suicide Prevention Services, says she encounters difficulties when trying to arrange suicide prevention programmes within secondary schools. “Most teachers want these programmes,” says Chien, “but they find it hard to squeeze them into their students’ schedules. They have too many lessons at school and, after school, they need to go to different cram schools.
“We feel it necessary to start these programmes in schools because it’s common for students to harm themselves. But not many schools take this seriously. They focus too much on academic performance.”
Chan is now calling on parents to appreciate their children ‘for their own abilities’ to improve self-esteem, and to make them feel cherished. Says Chan: “Parents need to discover and develop their children’s interests, to let them have their own dreams, and to help them feel devoted to their lives.”
A painful case
Siu Ching’s parents divorced before she was even born. Since her birth, she has been raised by her father and is now a 16-year-old waitress at a bubble tea store. She was a troubled girl, smoking and drinking at an early age, and she often went missing from home. She attempted suicide twice when she was 13. “I had a close friend, a ‘sworn-sister’ who frequently cut her arms and wrists,” says Ching. “When I broke up with my first boyfriend I was very upset and wanted to find a way to vent my feelings, so I too started cutting myself.” Ching shows Time Out six parallel scars on her wrist.
Soon after, she also discovered her father was planning to hand over custody back to her mother ‘because of my misbehaviour’, so she attempted suicide again. “My mum informed me of their decision,” recalls Ching. “I froze for a moment, then hung up and dashed into the bathroom, picked up a razor and cut my wrist. At that time I thought my dad didn’t want me any more – that he loved my younger brother more. I hated him so much and wanted to take revenge. I thought ‘none of you will need to take care of me if I’m dead’.” Ching was saved by her aunt, who later informed her father about the incident. The custody exchange was duly halted but her case was referred to a family court. Since then she has been living in youth dormitories. She seldom sees her parents now, and her parents have never visited. All exchanges are conducted by telephone.
The parental view
“Vengeful suicide is common among teenagers,” says Louis Kwok, a psychologist of the Hong Kong Institute for Children’s Mental Health. “They want to get back at those who they believe have caused them misery – usually their parents.”
Indeed, the mental trauma for their parents can be permanent. “The moment I knew my son committed suicide, I was sentenced to death,” says Mrs. Li. Her 16-year-old son jumped from the 35th floor of a neighbourhood building in the middle of the night. “My mind went blank when I was told of my son’s death,” she says. “And the pain got more acute as time went by. Many times I stood at the roadside watching the cars and wishing to jump into the traffic. Many times I walked in the streets and couldn’t hear a sound around me. I was like the walking dead.”
Isolated and alone
Alex, a 19-year-old associate student, watched his parents get divorced when he was eight years old. Alex, a homosexual, first attempted suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills at 13, after breaking up with his boyfriend. For the next three years, while being bullied (at both school and his church, the latter attempting to ‘correct’ his sexuality), Alex seriously harmed himself a further eight times, mostly by cutting. “Each time I wanted to die,” says Alex, “I felt nobody could help me and I wanted to escape. I kind of blamed my mum for that. She rarely praised me and always gave me negative comments. Gradually, I tended to keep everything to myself. She didn’t know what was happening to me at school, so I thought if I killed myself she would know what happened. I wanted to punish her.”
Heung Mo-yan, director of the Suicide Crisis Intervention Centre of the Samaritan Befrienders Hong Kong, believes many Hong Kong teenagers lack the ability of facing difficulties and solving problems on their own. She tells Time Out: “Nowadays parents tend to arrange everything for their children and satisfy their material desire, so they grow up getting whatever they want and have less chance to face difficulties and failures.”
On the other hand, when teenagers are severely depressed, parents do not always recognise the first warning signs, or the clear ‘signals for help’.
“People commit suicide mainly because they feel hopeless, useless and helpless,” adds Kwok. “When helpless teenagers can’t perform well at their studies, or face pressure from parents and teachers, or when their friends abandon them, or when they break with their loved ones, they often feel that everything is out of control, and suicide will seem the only thing they can control.”