Illustration by Jacqueline Jing Lin

Failure Is Worse than Death for Hong Kong's Youth

Last year, there were four student suicides over five days.

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Mar 30 2017, 2:00pm

Illustration by Jacqueline Jing Lin

In Hong Kong—a Chinese metropolis that moves at a breakneck pace, with people squeezed elbow-to-elbow on sidewalks and living neck-to-neck in narrow high rises across the city—competition is fierce.

The notion that financial success is paramount begins in secondary school. College entrance exams are widely seen as the first step to making it into a company that will afford a stable life in the former British colony, where a new home will be more expensive than anywhere else in the world. That pressure to succeed permeates every corner of life, from school to the dinner table. The pursuit of perfect scores may be the trigger behind an alarming spike in student suicides.

Between 2013 and 2016, 71 students in Hong Kong took their own lives; last year, there were four student suicides over five days. The victims included an 11-year-old. In the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 academic years, there were 19 student suicides each year. During the 2015-2016 academic year, that number ticked up to 33.

And things are only getting worse—this year so far, there have been at least six student suicides in the month of February alone. The pattern's been the same, with young teens caving under pressure, hurling themselves off of high buildings.

When the the city coroner's report is released in June with complete statistics for last year, 2016's youth suicide tally could well eclipse previous years—the number already stood as high as 22 student suicides from just January to March.

Hong Kong's suicide rate on average isn't unusually high—fewer than 13 per 100,000. South Korea, Japan and mainland China all have a higher overall rate. But like in the US, Hong Kong's youth suicide rate is climbing to new heights—and although the government's Education Bureau (EDB) implemented emergency measures at schools in March (including more student counseling and seminars with teachers and students), it openly denied a link between academic pressure and student suicide.

When I asked the EDB what's being done about increased academic pressure on students within the school system, its senior information officer, Douglas Wun, declined to comment. He also refused to comment on the uptick in student suicides and wrote via email, "Forgive me for having an imperfect memory. Would you remind me when and where the EDB said 'there was an increase in student suicides in the last three years'?" The EDB also declined to comment on its response to a young student who said schools were like a "prison" at a special government meeting held earlier this year.

As part of the emergency prevention measures adopted by the EDB, parents, teachers, healthcare professionals and government officials formed a special committee under the EDB to give its recommendations on how to prevent more student suicides. Paul Yip, the director of the Center for Suicide Research and Prevention—the city's leading research institute on self-harm—chaired the committee and submitted his final report to the EDB last November. The report concludes that "the education system could not explain sudden fluctuations in the general profile of student suicide cases" and that the EDB continues to be successful in relieving academic pressure.

But for those fighting at the grassroots level to protect Hong Kong's students from taking their own lives, the government's conclusion is disconnected from reality. "From the front lines, the most common distress reported by youth is heavy study pressure," says Martin Lau, a volunteer crisis counselor at Suicide Prevention Services (SPS) who works on its hotline. Lau says he hears from at least one student on the brink of suicide during a regular two-hour shift. "The conversations are [recently] much more intense and emotional."

The caseload of students in crisis has dramatically increased over the past year, says Vincent Ng, the executive director of SPS. Prior to March of last year, its suicide hotline received about 50 calls a month from students under 24 years old, at which point it rose to about 400 calls a month from youth in distress. It has held steadily at that rate, hence why SPS launched the young-person-specific Youth Link line. 

Not far from SPS's office on the gritty eastern edges of Kowloon, Samaritan Befrienders Hong Kong (SBHK) operates just above a parking garage in a massive public housing estate. Like SPS, the organization's caseload is climbing: The SBHK is even preparing to handle the influx of youth-in-crisis by bringing counselors from the hotline to chat apps, developing an app for cell phones and tablets with a chatroom function, and creating an animated AI (an animated robot) training package for schools.

"Students are having a problem with their identity—most of the time, they're just studying and they haven't formulated an idea of the future or the person they want to be," says Clarence Tsang, SBHK's executive director. When he was in secondary school, Tsang's teacher killed himself just before the year's college entrance exams.

Tsang says that in the months before, he could see his teacher was in distress, but he never bothered to approach him, because the cultural norm was to just study without distraction. By the time the exams were over, it was too late—and this is something Tsang still carries with him. Part of his mission now is to show how dangerous having these study blinders is.

Those study blinders can prevent other types of essential development for a child, too. "I've heard cases of 8-year-olds who still need their parents or maids to tie their shoelaces; I had a colleague tell me that when she was 12, her maid helped her bathe. When parents squeeze every minute of their child's time into studying, we have a problem," Tsang says.

From Tsang's experience working with suicide-prone students and their families, this inability to accomplish even the most basic life skills, because more quantifiable academic skills have been prioritized, leads to a profound frustration—and ultimately, the reason behind many student suicides.

"Put simply, they don't have lives at all," Tsang says. "The whole community is molding their kids the same way by talking about studying, but we have to accept not all of our kids are good at it—and we have to recognize the good things that they possess."

Suicide prevention is difficult enough to address, but actually implementing techniques is a different beast altogether. SPS and SBHK are two of only three organizations in Hong Kong—a bustling city of some 7.5 million and rising—dedicated to crisis intervention (the third is Samaritans Hong Kong). SBHK is the only organization that receives funding from the government, while the others rely on charitable donations and fundraising.

Yip, who heads the EDB special committee, stands firm that academic pressure cannot be isolated as the root cause of student suicide. "The education system is related...but we don't want to stereotype academic pressure as the only problem," he says.

Yip says that of the 37 student suicide cases investigated, almost all of them had more than one trigger—so while one of those triggers might have been academic pressure, it's therefore inaccurate to isolate the school system for blame. "It's not how we should deal with this," Yip says, adding that Hong Kong's secondary school students are less likely to kill themselves than dropouts.

"Our statistics [from the CSRP] suggest 15- to 24-year-olds in the school system do better than those that drop out and those that are unemployed—we have an unusual increase in those few months [January to March], but the suicide rate is still less than those not in the school system," Yip says.

"That logic is twisted in an extreme way," says Odilon Couzin, a member of the Citizens' Alliance for the Prevention of Youth Suicide—a coalition of Hong Kong's concerned parents, teachers and healthcare professionals. "Most parents I talk to think it is obvious: Academic pressure has a huge impact and is closely linked to suicide and suicidal tendencies," Couzin says. The group conducted an online survey late last year that found about 20,000 respondents agreed academic pressure is directly related to student suicide.

"It's difficult to change after years of building up this system of tests—there's also a degree of pride when it comes to performance. Parents want students to do well, and the system is self-propagating," Couzin says.

The resistance to change shouldn't come as a surprise given the massive scale of education in the city, both in and outside of school. In Hong Kong, education is not just big culture, it's big business: A MasterCard survey found that in 2015, families spent at least 30 percent of their household income on their children's education, mostly on enrichment classes to supplement secondary school.

"Personally, I really don't know what I can do to change this whole situation," says Lau, the crisis counselor. "Students have the feeling they lack care and attention from their parents and peers, and obviously as an NGO, we can't replace the role of teachers, of parents or of the government."

On January 23, the EDB announced that it would bring back mandatory standardized testing for third graders, despite public outcry last year that primary school was too young to start cramming.

"The education system may not change, schools may not change and teachers may not change, but parents can," Tsang says. "Parents are the only ones that can protect their children here."

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