Hong Kong faces urgent need to help suicidal youth

24 student suicides since Sept; more posting suicidal thoughts on Facebook but aid groups have hands tied

It is where cries for help are increasingly emitted. In this city throbbing with both smartphones and intensity, more and more young people are posting suicidal thoughts on Facebook.

But suicide prevention bodies are frustrated that they cannot reach out more effectively to these users, citing a lack of resources and the social media giant's privacy policy.

The urgent need to update and ramp up ways to connect with Hong Kongers at risk of killing themselves has become glaring in the wake of a recent spate of student suicides.

Over six months since the start of the academic year last September, 24 students have killed themselves. One was just 11 years old. Of the rest, 12 were primary or secondary students and 11 were tertiary students. This contrasts with an average of 23 student suicides annually in recent years.

The sudden spike, including four cases over five days this month, shocked the city and prompted the Education Bureau to hold an emergency meeting to discuss the issue.

  • FAST FACTS

  • POPULATION

    7.2 million

    NUMBER OF SUICIDES IN 2014

    894 (12.3 per 100,000)

    NUMBER OF YOUTH SUICIDES

    Ages 0 - 15: 5
    Ages 15 - 24: 49

    CAUSES OF YOUTH SUICIDES

    • Narrow definition of success

    • Lack of communication in families

    • Copycat effect due to use of social media and communication apps

    SOME MEASURES TAKEN

    • Getting at-risk students to sign a "no suicide contract", promising not to harm themselves and to list people they can call

    • In the wake of recent spate of suicides, government giving  HK$5,000 (S$884) to each school to organise activities instilling "positive energy"

    • Educational psychologists to be deployed to at-risk schools

    • Samaritan Befrienders developing chat app to engage those at risk

    •Sources: HKU Centre for Suicide Prevention and Research; Samaritan Befrienders Hong Kong

It announced new measures including organising seminars for teachers and parents, improving counselling services in schools and distributing information packs.

  • HELPLINES
  • SAMARITANS OF SINGAPORE (24-hour)

    1800-221-4444

    SINGAPORE ASSOCIATION FOR MENTAL HEALTH

    1800-283-7019

    IMH MOBILE CRISIS SERVICE

    6389-2222 (24-hour)

    CARE CORNER COUNSELLING CENTRE (Mandarin)

    1800-353-5800

    TOUCHLINE (TOUCH YOUTH SERVICE)

    1800-377-2252

    TINKLE FRIEND: CHILDREN

    1800-274-4788 on weekdays

A task force will be formed to look into other preventative solutions. It will issue a report in six months.

Education Secretary Eddie Ng announced last Monday that each government school will get HK$5,000 (S$880) to hold activities to "disseminate positivity". He was pilloried by lawmakers for the "pitiful amount".

While better than nothing, the measures fall short, say experts.

In particular, they note the urgent need to change outreach strategies in tandem with technology.

One clear trend is the almost ubiquitous use of Facebook among young Hong Kongers. The South China Morning Post reported that suicidal posts have appeared on the Chinese University of Hong Kong group page, CUHK Secrets.

But there are difficulties in getting to such users, says Samaritan Befrienders director Tsang Chin Kwok.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as his lack resources to plough through the multitude of public Facebook pages. They also do not have access to private news feeds and messages.

In the past, said Mr Tsang, Facebook would "automatically send our helpline numbers" to those in need. "But a few years ago, it told us it was ending this cooperation due to a policy change, perhaps because of privacy issues or clients complaining."

When contacted, a spokesman for Facebook said it has safeguards in place. If it receives reports of "troubling content", these will be reviewed and help and resources, including helpline numbers, will be sent to those in distress, she said.

There is hope that a more proactive approach could be taken.

Professor Paul Yip, who heads the University of Hong Kong's Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention, said he is in talks with Facebook to improve the process.

Another concern is that the popularity of social media, news sites and communication apps such as WhatsApp creates a greater "copycat effect" than before, he said.

"Whereas in the past, mainstream media could be prevailed upon to be responsible in its coverage of suicides, now it's harder to control what gets out there."

That said, Hong Kong's agencies are trying to fight back, using tools familiar to young Hong Kongers.

Samaritan Befrienders is developing an app with chat-room functions to engage those at risk. This will also host a goal-setting counter and a self-assessment tool for emotions. The NGO also trawls popular forums for suicidal posters.

Ultimately though, these are measures aimed at catching people before they fall. Beyond that, Hong Kong needs to take a harder look at itself in order to address the question of why its young are prone to doing so, said those interviewed.

Hong Kong has a lower suicide rate compared with other East Asian societies such as Japan and South Korea, but it is higher than Singapore's.

Latest statistics from the Samaritans of Singapore indicate that in 2014 there were 13 cases of suicides involving those aged 10 to 19. This year alone, there appears to have been at least three attempts.

One theme that emerges for both cities is fraying familial relations.

Hong Kong parents, especially those from the middle class, are anxious that their offspring secure good jobs and property, and pile on the stress. Yet, they "do not communicate", said Mr Tsang. "We really need to rebuild the trust between parents and kids, and urge them not to focus only on academic results."

Exacerbating Hong Kong's situation is an increasingly narrow definition of success. Hong Kong has always been a competitive society, but there is now only "one path" - academic - to success, said Mr Tsang.

This is worsened by the lack of diversification in the economy, which is dominated by a few sectors, such as finance. This narrows options for youngsters.

Looking ahead, Hong Kong as a society has to relook its mindset at all levels, said Prof Yip.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 27, 2016, with the headline 'HK faces urgent need to help suicidal youth'. Print Edition | Subscribe