Those who stop schooling may face other problems, says expert who wants to improve outreach efforts
ABOUT half of the young people who killed themselves in Singapore last year had stopped schooling, and the lack of outreach to this distressed group is a gap that needs to be plugged, said psychiatrist Daniel Fung.
Dropping out of school signals a host of problems that puts the young person at greater risk, said the chief of the child and adolescent psychiatry department at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH).
And while there are resources in place to help those in school, there is also a need to reach out to those who drop out of the system, he told reporters on the sidelines of the Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) 40th Anniversary Conference.
He and two other doctors conducted a study in 2003 that showed almost half of the teens here who committed suicide had dropped out of school, a trend that has persisted in the last seven years.
It gains urgency in the light of latest suicide figures, which show a marked increase in the number of young people here who killed themselves.
Nineteen young people aged 10 to 19 committed suicide last year, up from 12 in 2008. Among those aged 20 to 29, there were 72 deaths, up from 52 in 2008.
Overall, 401 people killed themselves last year, up from 364 in 2008. Suicide rates also rose in tandem, from 8.76 per 100,000 residents in 2008 to 9.35 per 100,000 residents.
The SOS plans to focus on youth suicide intervention next year, in the light of these numbers. It plans to work with voluntary welfare organisations dealing with delinquents to reach out to those not in schools, said its executive director Christine Wong.
SOS will also work with schools by training school leaders on youth suicide intervention skills, for example.
“The most effective way to reach out to youngsters is through the youngsters themselves,” Ms Wong said.
While dropping out of school may not cause suicidal tendencies, it is a symptom that all is not well, said Dr Fung.
“It could be that they have a lot of problems at home, financial difficulties, problems with the law or a serious illness.”
Also, not being academically inclined affects self-esteem and confidence, making them more vulnerable to depression and other mental health disorders, he said.
He urged community agencies to come together to help these youngsters, through family counselling services as well as programmes that engage them in meaningful activities, such as voluntary work and vocational training.
Children who are in school have a myriad of mental health programmes catering to them, and under guidelines from 2008, all primary and secondary schools now have at least one in-house counsellor.
The IMH also has a programme called Reach in about 180 schools, which promotes mental health among students and provides training for counsellors.
Since it started in 2007, Reach has identified and referred more than 100 students who showed signs of mental distress to IMH for early treatment, which prevented their conditions from worsening. The Reach helpline for school counsellors has also received more than 6,000 calls.
IMH is working on getting the programme into more schools by 2012, and one way is via social networking sites such as Facebook.
But yesterday’s conference keynote speaker, child and adolescent psychiatrist Graham Martin from Australia, noted that Singapore’s suicide rate is still low compared with that in other parts of the world.
Worldwide, a million people die on average each year by committing suicide.