Teen Benjamin Lim's death: Schools assess suicide risk but not for every police case, says Ng Chee Meng

View of block from which a 14-year-old jumped, the same day he was questioned by police over a molest case.
View of block from which a 14-year-old jumped, the same day he was questioned by police over a molest case. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

When the police turn up at a school seeking a student for investigations, school staff will check on the student's emotional and physical well-being, but will not conduct a suicide risk assessment in every case, Acting Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng said in Parliament yesterday.

Instead, such assessments are done only for those students who show signs of serious emotional distress or are known to have mental health issues, he added in response to questions from two MPs.

"We do not conduct a suicide risk assessment for every case as such screening may add distress or confusion to some students, especially for those who have not even contemplated suicide," said Mr Ng.

Yesterday, Non-Constituency MP Daniel Goh had asked if schools assess students in police probes for suicide risk.

In January, secondary school student Benjamin Lim was found dead at the foot of his block, hours after he was taken from his school by the police and questioned over a molest case. Mr Ng and Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam had delivered ministerial statements on the 14-year-old's death when the House sat earlier this month.

Mr Ng said yesterday that all school counsellors are trained to assess students for suicide risk, and consider factors such as a student's personal circumstances and medical status. The counsellors also check if the student has attempted suicide in the past, and ask the student if he plans to take his life.

But the minister cautioned that such assessments are not foolproof, "given the dynamic psychological state of a child".

"Subsequent developments that occur after the assessment can also alter the risk profile of the student," Mr Ng added.

He said it is more important to consistently monitor and support the student, adding that schools and parents have to work together.

Teachers and counsellors will look out for the student before and during questioning at the school, after the student returns home from the police station, and when the student returns to school, he said

Likewise, parents must give greater attention to support their child during this period, he added.

He reiterated that the Ministry of Education is taking part in the review of police procedures involving minors, which the police had announced following Benjamin's death.

Depending on the review, the ministry is open to the possibility of having school counsellors act as appropriate adults, Mr Ng said.

Currently, appropriate adults sit in when the police take statements from people with intellectual or mental disabilities.

Mr Ng also outlined the training that teachers and counsellors go through, in response to Dr Fatimah Lateef (Marine Parade GRC), who asked how schools support students with mental health issues.

He said teachers are trained to keep an eye out for students who show distress signals and talk to them, among other things.

Students who need more support are referred to school counsellors, who all have professional qualifications in counselling, said Mr Ng.

The more severe cases are referred to medical professionals.

He said these systems were developed in consultation with mental health experts, including Dr Daniel Fung of the Institute of Mental Health.

"Our schools take the psychological and mental well-being of our students very seriously," said Mr Ng.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 15, 2016, with the headline 'Teen's death: Schools assess suicide risk but not for every police case'. Print Edition | Subscribe