From The Gallery

River Valley High School tragedy: Having the courage to help, and to ask for help when needed

In the aftermath of the River Valley High School incident, Education Minister Chan Chun Sing said that he saw grace, compassion and solidarity among the students and staff of the school.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The death of a River Valley High School student has shocked the country, including parents in a school WhatsApp chat group that I am part of.

On Sunday (July 25) night, one of them circulated a recording of the song Scars in Heaven by the band Casting Crowns. The chorus goes:

"The only scars in heaven, they won't belong to me and you;
There'll be no such thing as broken, and all the old will be made new;
And the thought that makes me smile now, even as the tears fall down;
Is that the only scars in heaven are on the hands that hold you now."

As I played it, I - and a relative who was with me - started to cry.

On Tuesday, Education Minister Chan Chun Sing held space for the collective anguish felt by many Singaporeans. He also took pains to reiterate two points about success - points which are often lost in the wind in highly competitive Singapore.

First, it "cannot, should not and must not" be the constant need to be compared with someone else, and having to live up to somebody else's image, he said.

Second, the definition of success goes beyond the academic.

"The greatest gift that we can give to our children is to accept and love them unconditionally, help them be at ease with who they are," said Mr Chan.

"It is always very sad to see a child come home from school without any sparkle in the eye. Then they are just being made to feel that they are living up to someone else's expectations, and it destroys the confidence of the child."

He asked parents to be models of the good behaviour they wish to see in their children.

"Do our actions and choice of words and actions build people up or tear people down?

"Let us break the vicious cycles of negativity by standing up for others and responding with grace and compassion... no matter how tough the pressures or how intense the competition may be."

His words hit home, and they hit hard.

How many of us have been at the receiving end of sniping and social exclusion, or have sniped at and excluded others ourselves? How many of us have told our children to do better in their exams - and dangled a shiny new toy in front of them in the hope they will get that next AL1?

We tell our children what matters is the size of their hearts and the strength of their character. But living in a world where many opportunities are still stacked in favour of the more-qualified, our children - who pick up our every emotional inflection and see through our bravado - know we sometimes do not believe what we preach.

These are larger economic and societal issues no single minister can answer. But for a start, Mr Chan urged everyone not to stigmatise those who seek help. "To those who are struggling, I want you to know that we are here for you. Reach out. Let us know if you need help," he pleaded.

Studies have shown that one in seven Singaporeans has experienced a mental disorder in their lifetime, yet more than three-quarters did not seek any professional help. Which is why it was so important for the minister to come out and say that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

Responding to Mr Alex Yam (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC), he also said the Ministry of Education plans to increase the number of teacher-counsellors in schools from over 700 to more than 1,000 in the next few years. And to relieve pressure from prolonged Covid-19 disruptions, students taking the O, N and A levels this year will not be tested on some topics covered towards the end of their syllabus.

I thought Mr Chan's suggestion to strengthen parent-school partnerships through the parent support groups was a good one, though how this will be done is not yet clear.

Today, the role played by these groups can be highly dependent on individual personalities. I have to admit to muting my chat group after multiple requests for school donations, event volunteers, and even spelling word lists.

The hope, said Mr Chan, is that these groups will not just support the school, but also expand their role and be an additional channel of help to children and families.

MPs such as Mr Gerald Giam (Aljunied GRC) also raised the issue of security. While metal detectors would be too intrusive, can all classrooms be retrofitted with doors that can be locked from the inside?

Mr Chan gave the assurance that this will be rolled out progressively to older schools which do not have such doors.

But the authorities should not paradoxically engender a siege mentality, he said, as schools are like a second home for students and a collective role is needed to look out for - and report - worrying behaviours. "We do not want to turn our schools into fortresses, which will create unease and stress among our staff and students."

While mental illnesses have many causes, a growing body of research shows that in young people, they are linked to heavy consumption of social media.

There is an urgent need for students to be equipped with specific tools to cope with online abuse. Having personally seen 10-year-olds with suicide ideation, I wholeheartedly agree with Ms Hany Soh's (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC) suggestion to expand mental wellness under the new Character and Citizenship Education (CCE) curriculum to upper primary levels.

But ultimately, formal programmes can do only so much. As Mr Chan said, it takes a lot for a distressed person to open up and share their feelings with someone they trust, and this trust must be built up over time.

It is every Singaporean's responsibility to amplify positivity in words and action, and to edify instead of destroy. There is no better example of this than what classmates of the 16-year-old student told Mr Chan after the incident.

He said: "Amidst their pain and confusion as to what had happened... they just had one simple request: 'Minister, please help our friend. Please take care of him.' In that moment of darkness, I saw grace, I saw compassion, I saw solidarity among the students and the staff of River Valley High.

"The way they carried themselves, the way they responded to the incident will be etched in my mind forever."


Getting help

National Care Hotline: 1800-202-6868 (8am - 12am)

Mental well-being

Fei Yue’s Online Counselling Service: eC2.sg website (Mon to Fri, 10am to 12pm, 2pm to 5pm)
Institute of Mental Health’s Mental Health Helpline: 6389-2222 (24 hours)
Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444 (24 hours) /1-767 (24 hours)
Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019 (Mon to Fri, 9am to 6pm)
Silver Ribbon Singapore: 6386-1928/6509-0271 (Mon to Fri, 9am to 6pm)
Tinkle Friend: 1800-274-4788 (Mon to Fri, 2.30pm to 5pm)/ Tinkle Friend website (Mon to Thu, 2.30pm to 7pm and Fri, 2.30pm to 5pm)

Counselling

TOUCHline (Counselling): 1800-377-2252 (Mon to Fri, 9am to 6pm)
Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800-353-5800 (Daily, 10am to 10pm)