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Teetering at the edge of a precipice

PHOTO: THINKSTOCK

Learn to spot silent calls for help from distressed people caught in a downward spiral of emotions

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me, goes the famous saying.

But words can sometimes cause irreparable harm. As they did to 15-year-old Canadian Amanda Todd. In 2012, tormented by constant bullying, she attempted to take her own life by drinking bleach. She was rushed to the hospital in time and managed to recover.

But, when she returned to school, her peers began mocking her suicide attempt.

They joked and harassed her on various social media platforms, urging her to kill herself and posting memes of her drinking bleach with flippant comments like, "Am I Amanda Todd yet?"

Worn down yet again, she tried to take her own life once more, and, this time, she passed on.

The teenager’s death is a poignant reminder that harsh words and actions may have a stronger impact on those who are already having suicidal thoughts, compared to those who can manage their own emotions better.

When broaching the topic, be sensitive to people’s feelings. To those seeking help, joking about suicide can be discouraging to those seeking help. It creates a further sense of isolation as they may feel people around them do not care.

Recognise signs for help

Know someone whom you think may be suicidal? Don't hesitate to ask the person and talk about it — that could be a life-saving intervention.

Showing support in a positive and non-judgemental manner assures the person that someone cares so he or she does not feel alone and scared in a vulnerable state.

Look out for clues that someone you know may be feeling distressed. They include verbal warning signs with expressions such as "Life is too painful for me", or making suicide threats. Other emotional or behavioural signs include withdrawing from family and friends, and consuming alcohol or drugs in a self-abusive manner.

It is important to note that having suicidal thoughts is not a sign of weakness. It can happen to individuals who are going through a very tough period and are convinced that there is no light at the end of the tunnel in which they feel trapped.

Youth at risk

In Singapore last year, on average, there was more than one suicide a day — in all, 429 cases of death by suicide,the highest since 2013.

That is up from 409 cases in 2015, 415 cases in 2014 and 422 cases in 2013, according to data released by Immigration and Checkpoints Authority's annual Report on Registration of Births and Deaths.

And, for every death, there were 10 to 15 cases of attempted suicide.

Data shared by Samaritans of Singapore (SOS), a suicide prevention agency, showed that youth aged 29 and below made up the highest proportion of suicide cases in 2015, accounting for 99 deaths compared to other age groups.

Some common sources of stress cited by the youth who reached out to SOS include mental health issues, academic pressure, as well as relationship problems at home and in school.

These stresses are further compounded by the nasty ways some people behave under the guise of online anonymity, thus increasing the potential for some teens at risk to commit suicide.

Online dangers

Singapore is ranked second highest globally for cyber-bullying, according to a 2013 Microsoft Trustworthy Computing study, outranking bigger nations such as India, Japan and Russia.

Over 70 per cent of 4,000 Singaporean students surveyed by Touch Cyber Wellness & Sports have experienced some form of cyber-bullying.

In an article published in The Straits Times on July 26 last year, Ms Petrine Lim, principal social worker at Fei Yue Community Services, said that growing up in the digital age could make them particularly susceptible to negative online influences that might steer them into harming themselves or developing suicidal tendencies.

"This results in those who are feeling really depressed going online to try and find out how to deal with depression, where there are a whole spectrum of answers and people who might try to give them an outlet for their pain," she said.

For some of the teens who took the survey, online bullying was an extension of physical and mental bullying that they were already suffering from at school — a hopeless and overwhelming experience.

Dr Adrian Wang, a psychiatrist who has worked with victims of cyber bullying, explained in an article published in The New Paper on Aug 11, 2014, that trolls or bullies want to create feelings of powerlessness and helplessness in their victims. And that can lead their victims to depression and even thoughts of suicide.

Says Ms Christine Wong, executive director of SOS: “The best protective factor to suicide could very well be to start getting better at recognising distress in others and being comfortable in giving support when needed.

"While we can strive for as many people to be trained in spotting, approaching and directing those at risk to the appropriate help, it will also require society opening up to the idea that this is something we need to start focusing on."

People in crisis, feeling suicidal or who have lost someone to suicide can call 1800 221-4444 (24-hour hotline) or email pat@sos.org.sg for emotional support. Visit sos.org.sg for more information.