12th April 2024 – (Hong Kong) The persistent rising rate of student suicides in Hong Kong which recently culminated in the tragic death of a 13-year-old student at MTR Sheung Shui Station, has sparked a fervent call for a comprehensive overhaul of the city’s education system. This tragedy is not just a singular event but a distressing symptom of deeper systemic issues that require immediate attention.

The alarming surge in student suicides, a horrific trend that has seen 31 precious young lives lost in the first 11 months of 2023, serves as a clarion call – a desperate plea for society to confront the demons that plague our youth and embrace sweeping reforms to safeguard their well-being. The causes of this distressing trend are multifaceted. Psychological experts point to the high expectations and academic pressures as primary catalysts. However, it’s the broader societal expectations and the stigmatisation of mental health issues that exacerbate the situation. In Hong Kong, where success is often narrowly defined by academic and later professional achievements, students find themselves in a relentless pursuit of perfection.

This crisis, one that has left an indelible stain on our collective conscience, is a multifaceted scourge, its roots intertwined with the enduring trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic, the relentless pressures of academic achievement, and the fractures that have emerged within the fabric of family life. For too long, our education system has been a crucible of unrelenting stress, a machine that grinds young minds into oblivion, sacrificing holistic development on the altar of test scores and ranks.

As former justice secretary Wong Yan-lung poignantly observed, students in Hong Kong navigate a rigid system where “one test determines your fate” – a brutal reality that leaves little room for failure, for exploration, or for the nurturing of well-rounded personalities. This myopic fixation on academic prowess has come at a devastating cost, one measured not merely in statistics, but in the shattered dreams and extinguished hopes of a generation.

The COVID-19 pandemic, a cataclysmic event that upended the very foundations of normalcy, has only exacerbated this crisis. For four long years, students grappled with disruptions to their educational journey, forced to adapt to a faster-paced academic life in the wake of the pandemic’s retreat. Coupled with the slow economic recovery and the fractures that have emerged within family units, a potent cocktail of despair has taken root, fueling a sense of helplessness and hopelessness that has driven far too many of our youth to contemplate the unthinkable.

The statistics are a haunting testament to the depths of this crisis. The Hong Kong Jockey Club Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention has reported a staggering 37 suspected student suicides and over 300 attempts in the first 10 months of 2023 alone. These are not mere numbers, but lives cut tragically short, dreams extinguished before they could take flight, and a generation’s potential squandered in the throes of despair.

In the face of this anguish, the call for action has reverberated throughout the corridors of power, echoing from the halls of academia to the chambers of government. Educators, lawmakers, mental health professionals, and activists have all raised their voices in a chorus of urgency, demanding immediate intervention to stem the tide of this burgeoning crisis.

The government’s response, while well-intentioned, falls woefully short of the comprehensive strategy required to address the root causes of this epidemic. The proposed three-tier emergency mechanism, while laudable in its aims, fails to grapple with the systemic issues that have catalysed this crisis. Relying on teachers and social workers as the first line of defence, without providing them with the necessary training and resources, is akin to sending soldiers into battle unarmed.

Moreover, the mere provision of emergency support, while crucial, does little to address the underlying malaise that has taken root within our education system – a malaise that prioritises rote learning and test scores over the holistic development of well-rounded individuals, resilient in the face of life’s challenges.

As Professor Paul Yip Siu-fai, the founding director of the Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention at the University of Hong Kong, so eloquently stated, we must strive to provide hope to our young people, to instil within them a sense of purpose and possibility that transcends the confines of academic achievement. This is the clarion call that must resonate throughout our society, a call for a profound shift in our approach to education and mental health.

To achieve this, we must embrace a holistic vision of education, one that prioritises emotional well-being alongside academic rigour. Teachers must be equipped with the training and resources necessary to identify and support at-risk students, and mental health education must become an integral part of the curriculum, fostering resilience and coping strategies from an early age.

This crisis has led to calls for significant reforms in Hong Kong’s education system. Critics argue that there needs to be a shift from an overemphasis on grades and test scores to a more holistic approach that considers the mental and emotional well-being of students. This includes integrating life skills and mental health education into the curriculum, reducing the focus on standardised testing, and providing greater support for students struggling with mental health issues.

Beyond the classroom, a concerted effort must be made to destigmatise mental health issues, creating an environment where seeking help is embraced, not shunned. Families must play a pivotal role in this endeavour, with parents urged to pay closer attention to warning signs and to cultivate open and supportive communication with their children.

Employers, too, must contribute to this cultural shift, fostering inclusive workplaces that support those grappling with mental health challenges and providing avenues for personal growth and fulfilment beyond the narrow confines of the corporate ladder.

This is not a battle that can be won overnight, nor is it one that can be waged in isolation. It demands the collective will of a society that has long prided itself on its resilience and determination, a society that recognises that the future lies not in the pursuit of fleeting achievements, but in the cultivation of well-rounded individuals capable of navigating life’s challenges with grace and fortitude.