Yesterday saw the 17th student suicide this academic year, sparking outrage on social media from netizens saying that the tough education system was killing its students.
“If students take their lives because of pressure from studying and exams, should we sue the Hong Kong government and Education Bureau for murder?” asked Lam Yat-hei, chief editor of the 100 Most Magazine and a key opinion leader online. That Facebook status had over 13,000 like, sad, and angry reactions.
In a video on her Facebook page, Scholarism’s Agnes Chow-ting expressed her frustrations at officials’ responses to the recent spate of suicides. She criticised Minister for Education Eddie Ng Hak-kim for shirking responsibility, and Chinese University vice-chancellor Joseph Sung for failing to re-evaluate the education system.
“Sung just asked parents to reflect on how they teach children. Just reflect. That’s all. That doesn’t solve the suicide problem,” said Chow. “A person may commit suicide for many reasons, but if the suicide rate of a place is high, it has to be society’s problem.”
Alex (not his real name), a Primary One student, has an average of nine homework assignments every day. He has two dictations a week, and a test every two weeks. Every day, seven days a week, he spends four hours in tutor classes.
“He gets home at 7pm, has dinner and continues his homework because he can’t finish them all during tutor class,” said his dad, Peter, who works as a technical officer in the construction business. “He always asks me, ‘Dad, why am I busier than you?’ because I get off work at 6pm. I don’t know what to tell him. I just say if you work hard, things will get better. He has no time to play at all. Many other parents think this is normal. I find that really unacceptable.”
Form Three student Caleb (not his real name) said he has contemplated suicide “constantly” since Primary One.
“School is like a datastream, constantly giving you work. You can’t argue against how much work they give you, you can’t bargain at all. Parents and punishments force you to work, and having little time to do a lot of work really sucks,” he says. “It’s not like we want to be lazy. But without motivation you can’t work well. It’s just work work work work work.” Caleb has tried calling various suicide hotlines twice, but both times nobody picked up.
Clarence Tsang, Executive Director of The Samaritans, which provides 24-hour multilingual suicide prevention services, says they frequently cannot accommodate all the calls they receive, especially from 8pm to 2am when the lines are the busiest. A typical call takes 30 to 60 minutes, and the group can only provide five lines at a time due to limited office space. But among the 17,851 calls they received in 2014, only 5 per cent were from youth aged below 20, a 15 per cent decrease from two decades ago.
“This shows the youth have changed how they seek help. Many do it online now, by posting a status on social media or going to forums. But this isn’t a good thing because the responses are often not constructive to them,” says Tsang. He says many people post comments such as “support”, “don’t be sad” and “take care”, but short comments often make the person feel misunderstood and become even more lonely.
Tsang recommends sending a private message to friends who seem to be going through a hard time to learn what they are going through. “What’s important is to let them know they are not alone, and that you are on their side. If you can, accompany them to seek professional help. If you don’t think you can do this, it’s better not to comment at all.”
Asked what he would change of the school system, Caleb suggests limiting homework during weekends and giving more options for students to choose what to study. “And give more real extra-curricular activities, not just tutorials and music classes,” he says.