Co-authored by Kelvin Lee, business student at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
Less than three days apart, two students aged 15 and 20 tragically took their lives. The former was a Form 4 student who excelled in track and field; the latter, a high-achieving third-year medical student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
As students and parents grapple with the spate of suicides since the beginning of the academic year, much attention has been placed on the stressful environment fostered by parents and educators. After all, pre-university students are expected to go to school from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., spend an additional two hours at tutorial school and, on top of it all, take part in extracurricular activities such as music classes and sports training. For university students, joining executive committees of student bodies (Hong Kong's version of a fraternity) is seen as a rite of passage, and many work hard to achieve good academic results in order to secure a prosperous job.
The serious dialogue on how to improve our study-life balance must continue. At the same time, we must start paying more attention to mental health support. Perhaps the running joke, "If you're mentally ill, go to Tsing San [Castle Peak] Hospital", suggests a dangerous perception among Hong Kong students that mental illness is shameful, and anyone who seeks help is effectively "crazy".
Such stigmatization is harmful because students will continue to perceive mental health as a taboo subject, while educational institutions refuse to place mental health discussions front and centre, to protect their reputation. If we do not change this mindset, more students will be denied support during a mental health crisis, and schools will once again be criticized for failing to prevent tragic incidents. Both students and the schools themselves will lose if we don't create an environment of acceptance and understanding of people with mental health problems.
When more than four in 10 Hongkongers between the ages of 11 and 30 say they have experienced thoughts of suicide, we should acknowledge that many young adults go through moments of mental crisis at some point in their lives. Seeking support should not be viewed as a flaw or weakness, but as a sign of wisdom and courage for acknowledging that we all need a helping hand from time to time.
To really change the stigma of mental health, students, parents and educators must work together to promote a healthy conversation. At the pre-university level, parents play an important role in instilling the notion that "it's OK to ask for help". If children are more willing to open up at a young age, chances are they will be more willing to seek help at an older age.
When we asked friends studying at various universities across Hong Kong whether the subject of mental health was discussed in orientation camps or dormitory events, there was an almost unanimous "no". It doesn't come as a surprise, given that an orientation camp is mainly fun and games, but if its true purpose is to help students transition into university life, student leaders should facilitate serious discussions on mental health awareness and other issues important to overall well-being.
In addition to providing more awareness and counseling services to students, educational institutions should always look for new initiatives to improve mental health support. For example, the Wellness Recovery Action Plan is a psycho-educational program created in the U.S. to help people combat mental health issues. A unique aspect is its peer-support system, allowing trained students to facilitate mental health discussions in groups (university mental health clinics are usually overburdened, often neglecting support for students who show mild to moderate symptoms). This shows that students and institutions can and must work together to overcome the stigma of mental health problems.
Tragedies such as suicides shed light on the most devastating consequences of the struggle for mental well-being, and we should not forget the silent majority who are trying to cope. Greater understanding and compassion could go a long way in positively shaping society's view of mental health issues.
This article was first published on the South China Morning Post on March 14th, 2016.
If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.