Suicide: Let’s Start with #howru

An earlier abridged version of this post has been replaced by this complete one since 24/8/2016 3PM.

Dedicated to Tiffany and all those close to our hearts who’ve left us

When I was Year 4, a friend extremely dear to me became increasingly distant and intentionally so. She avoided messages, shunned company and often gave cold responses to our attempts at a conversation. The hurt was real, for us (her friends) and for her. Eventually, we decided to give her the space she fought with us for – we called her out to the movies less, spent less time with her in class and let time ease the detachment. On a fateful afternoon that I still remember vividly, I had just caught “Finding Nemo in 3D” at the Cathay Cineleisure theatres with a friend. We were laughing, arms linked and I had an empty popcorn box in the other hand. The high we were in dropped to an immediate low when we found almost 50 unread messages on each of our phones from our friend. The multiple messages said the same thing – “I’m so sorry”. Our hearts dropped. The frantic hours that followed; calling everyone we knew could have been in contact with her, crying, the sense of loss and regret, and more crying are all fuzzy memories for us today. Perhaps, the height of fear so traumatic that the mind has buried it deep in our subconscious for self-care.

Thankfully, this friend remains a good one today, closer than many others and this episode is still etched in our hearts. The close shave with death and the one choice that almost made all the difference though, is one that I am familiar with. In my years in the Raffles Program, I have heard about or known of at least one suicide in every two years. Even upon graduation, heartbreaking news as such continue to spread across the school population like wildfire. While the following anecdotes are drawn from the school context, though, I wish to qualify that this trend is observed nationwide and is in no way, unique to the Rafflesian context though one might be tempted to draw flawed causal relations so as to detach oneself from the fear-inducing reality that suicide is a choice that anyone has the power to make. This morning, it is pouring heavily outside and the bus inches forward as if intentionally buying me time to think. This piece is on the suicides we don’t talk about enough and the lessons we are learning, but a little too slowly.

The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli introduces the Confirmation Bias within the first 5 chapters and labels it the “father of all fallacies” and the “mother of cognitive biases”. The Confirmation Bias is the tendency to selectively intake information to support existing theories and perceived patterns we have identified. It is our means of protecting our minds from the complexity of this world we live in and it helps us make sense of our everyday stimulus. It is dangerous though, to apply it in some occasions. In Year 2, when I heard of the first suicide in school, it was my first encounter with such news. Naturally, I formulated the belief that such incidents were singular and anomalous – how else could we explain the hundreds of others going through similar phases in life who choose otherwise and live on to the next day? How else might I rationalize this terrifying choice that the individual had made? An exception, it had to be.

In the growing up years, news of suicides spread more often than rumours of depression. The surprise that follows the knowledge of the suicide is accompanied by statements like, “Wow, no one could tell.” Or “Who knew?” and “We could never have seen that coming.” Never. In RGS, the culture of giving, the ‘tradition’ of sending encouraging messages around whenever an exam was near and the kindness initiatives by the Peer Support Board led me to be puzzled about how an environment like this could allow the incubation of suicidal thoughts. I continued to affirm my belief that these incidents were anecdotal so as not to confront the alarming paradox. Then, in RI, we are so often told to be thankful for our privilege, taught by the public that expression of negative emotions is an indication of weakness or a lack of gratitude. We are convinced that our material possessions or tangible achievements are the only valuable assets and there is nothing more we could ask for – our understanding of value is warped thereon.

What you teach is what you get. Our haste in pointing fingers at the flaws from within the school are oblivious to the fact that we are all part of the picture that completes the reality for students within – newspaper articles that blow up anecdotes and draw inaccurate causal relations between these incidents with “being in an elite school”, relatives who say “you’re from Raffles, can one lah” or worse, those who transform the very identity of being a Rafflesian into a label synonymous with expectations of achieving – the blessing and the curse of being in the institution is the result of these external factors beyond the school’s control. The lack of empathy embedded in this culture that goes beyond the four walls of the institution has silenced the unhappiness and concealed the symptoms. “Good,” is the only acceptable answer to “How are you?”

In my final months in Junior College, I struggled a lot with insomnia. There were countless of sleepless nights, heart thumping episodes and indescribable anxiety. It was in the company of a close friend that I visited our school counsellor for the first time. Following which, the visits were followed up with messages that showed consistent and reliable support from the counsellor and comfort from the knowledge that I could always seek help where I needed. Friends who knew I had seen the counsellor also showered me with hugs and daily words of affirmation. With the benefit of hindsight, I could reaffirm my decision to visit him. Admittedly though, there was hesitation before letting anyone know that I was going to the counsellor at that point. It was as if I would be admitting to something being very wrong with me; some kind of problem I couldn’t resolve. I silenced myself for fear of judgment.

Herein lies the problem. There is a stigma – against those who extrovert their feelings of negativity and those who externalise their struggles. It is ironic that while everyone knows that life is an oscillating narrative (one that has downs as much as it has ups), we only listen with most empathy at the part where “life is a bed of roses”. One would expect that with our understanding of the value of a human life, we would protect it at all costs; but how ‘acceptable’ is getting help and how much do we encourage the most powerful forms of suicide prevention in the society that we are all a part of creating? Did you know that as of 2015, Singapore has seen an average of 400 suicides every year (from 2010-2014) on top of another 1000 cases of attempt suicides? Of which National Statistics show that the bulk of the cases come from young adults aged 20-29 years (2015), and the numbers for youth suicides have recently reached a 15-year high. Let every news of suicide be remembered; let us not brush off every individual’s choice as an ‘exception’ or ‘anomalous’. It is not okay that the choice to take one’s life is this prevalent and there must be something we can do as individuals:

1 Let us all inherently matter as human beings: the prizes, achievements, the trophies and tangible outcomes, the ‘paper chase’ and grades are but a fraction of our being. Dr Chia Boon Hock, a psychiatrist specialising in suicide, said the faster pace of life, coupled with the fact that those aged between 20 and 29 “expect a lot and want a lot more”, contributed to the higher number of suicides. Perhaps, the true challenge is to pass the initial judgment of a person’s achievements and to learn the virtues, beliefs and character that make the rest of the person. If we let these matter proportionally, we might just encourage all around us to strive for a more balanced gauge of self-worth.

2 Let it be okay to not be (okay). The most heartbreaking of all that underlies suicides is not only the aftermath of loss with no return, but also the unimaginable sense of isolation that had paved the way for such a choice. My favourite poem on Solitude by Ella Wheeler Wilcox amplifies the loneliness that we experience from our day-to-day because we don’t embrace not being okay enough. Give praise to the courage of those who seek professional help from counsellors and talk openly about difficulties and unhappiness. The truest test of empathy is at a friend’s lowest point.

3 Spread the word – my younger self did not see the prevalence of suicide simply because it was yet to be a normal occurrence in my sphere of knowledge and it is only when you brush past this terrifying experience of loss over and over that you see the magnitude of the choice and the gravity of the issue. I would like to propose that we transform the deep sense of loss into motivation to raise awareness about its prevalence and on its prevention*. Be part of World Suicide Prevention Day Singapore 2016.

*The 24-hour Samaritan of Singapore hotline is 1800-221 4444.

The apathy that is encapsulated in some familiar consolation (“life goes on” or “the institution will do something about it” because “the system is at fault”) is indicative of our increased desensitization. Perhaps, it is to protect ourselves for we would otherwise feel helpless. But in this case, where we are the very agents of change and prevention, it is imperative that we try. Let’s start with #howru.

I invite you to share your thoughts with me, if any at shermaineng_1997@yahoo.com.sg.

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In Memory of Tiffany

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Dear Tiffany,

Last night, we sang in chorus, dressed in black or white we stood in rows and bowed our heads in prayer; we promised to have your legacy live through each and every one of us whom you’ve influenced in one way or another as the pastor lead the service. We penned down words of gratitude towards your existence that we wished we could have told you in person. We put our arms around one another in consolation for the deep sense of loss that we were crying for.

Tonight, a day after attending the service, I spent hours reading your page on which you shared your thoughts and feelings. I scrolled through your Facebook Feed and read the messages others had penned down in dear memory of you. It reminds me of the colourful cards lain out on the table at the service, each one filled with crammed lines of thanks and expressions of love from others whom you mean so much to. I wish I could tell you about the power of influence that you had in your family, amongst your friends and beyond – how much we loved you so so dearly and the inspiration you’ve brought to those who have had the privilege of crossing paths with you. The pain we experience from your departure is born from our knowledge that the powerful influence you had as the beautiful being you were was to be so short-lived.

In the last visible post, you wrote that it was “not that (our) love isn’t enough, but (you) – (you’re) not enough”. It breaks my heart to think that our society is one that fails to validate a person for inherently just being. We let the structures control us and we forget to remember that we are more than our achievements, more than just the sum of what our portfolio and testimonials say. We let the social pressure control us and feel unworthy of our negative emotions because of our relative privilege (They tell us, “Don’t be ungrateful, you’re already so lucky.”, as if invalidating the unhappiness we experience). And if I ever got to read this in time, I would’ve told you you are as enough as you ever needed to be, because we all have inherent worth in the lives that we lead and in the people that we are. You were more than enough for all of us and I thank you on behalf of all your dearest friends and family whom you brought immense joy and life to. You will always remain the gem that you were in our hearts. Always.

The only promise we can keep to you now is to not be confused. In your last visible post, you wrote that “if (you) were to leave the only thing (you) would possibly regret is the confusion (you) leave behind for the people who love (you), and the people (you) love.” It heartens me to remember that we had your authentic, genuine kindness in our midst, a quality immensely rare in our lives that pass us by so fleetingly. I will make sense of your choice as one that you made to find peace and one that you made to ‘change the world’ in your own, special means. If I ever could, I would tell you that you did it. I’d say “Tiffany, you taught us all love and kindness and even in your last days you reminded us to forgive ourselves. In that way, you did it, you changed the world,” because these lessons and important values you stood for will continue to live through us and the influence you’ve had in our lives will be the legacy that we promise to uphold.

Thank you for your being, Tiffany. In dearest memory of you, I promise to, (in your words) “keep loving others”.

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Home, Truly

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This morning, donned in our Lift Stronger, Live Longer T-shirts, my siblings and I represented Strong Mind Fit Body at the Jurong Spring CC National Day Celebrations. To see throngs of people dressed in red and many others waving their Singapore flags in one hand, holding onto their children in the other, I was reminded of why I love this country. Timely, given the National Day Celebrations, this piece is in memory of Singapore’s 51st birthday:

Most thankful: For safety and security

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I strongly believe that we find value in the present not only with our memory of the past but also because of the potential that the present holds for the future. We treasure today not only for its connection with yesterday, but even more for the tomorrow that it makes possible. We are in an age of even more opportunities than ever before, even more possibilities – the trend of start-ups and of social enterprises, the increasing interest in volunteerism and the message we sell of “pursuing passion”; all of which, are about dreams becoming reality.

This deeply empowering possibility for many of us come as a privilege thanks to the backdrop of security. Granted, there is an overwhelming invasion of new threats that know little boundaries (think computer science developments allowing hacking or the latent weapon in ideology). Let’s be careful, though, not to crowd out appreciation for the safety that we otherwise enjoy from our day-to-day lives regardless of socio-economic backgrounds (which is rare elsewhere in the world).

Personal freedom, thanks to some extent of assured security and safety, frees us from the less important decisions like what you can wear, what time you can stay out till on the streets, how to get home late in the night and which parts of Singapore you’d feel comfortable in. The time we save from making these menial decisions, then, can be spent on these more empowering considerations like “what kind of difference do I want to make?” and “where do I see myself in ten years?”

Most concerned: For harmonious diversity

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Visits to the National Museum of Singapore have etched our illustrious history (in spite of being a young nation) dating back to the 18th century, in my mind. With the power of context, I am even more appreciative of the diversity and identity that we build on in present day. Consider the friction that comes in everyday interaction with people we consider ‘different’ and multiply that many times as you play out Singapore’s stories of natives coming together to build the Majulah Singpura mantra that we believe in today.

This afternoon, I watched the film The Provision Shop by Royston Tan. Set against the backdrop of an old provision shop, the show explores social interactions and relationships in our local community through a microcosm. It unpacks the tensions that are arising in Singapore as a result of increasing diversity – with the influx of foreign workers and international students. It reminds me of my understanding earlier that our choice to anger against these people, who ultimately came to Singapore for purposes in their lives not so different from our own, is because it is always easier to vent frustration to a human face (the tangible results) rather than an intangible policy. It is simpler to cumulate group-hate for a character that is symbolic of a threat rather than critically analyse the words in the policy paper that has opened up these possibilities.

I had earlier written about race in Singapore and our pioneer’s hopes for the crux of the Singapore spirit to lie in maintaining harmony regardless of differences. These principles of harmonious diversity and embracing differences can be applied to all if we learn to see one another simply, as human beings. It is silly to make individuals’ lives worse off when they are but innocent responders to opportunity. The domestic workers who are increasingly the guardians of our old or the labourers who work under the Singapore heat for the buildings that become our offices; the expatriates developing companies that bring in incredible revenue for our economic development and the international students bringing diversity to the classroom that we so often complain about the lack of (diversity)– are they not as much a part of the Singapore Story as we are?

We say it in the pledge (“Regardless of race, religion and language”) and we sing it in our favourite National Day songs (“There is comfort in the knowledge, that home about its people too.”); but where is the consistency if we have yet to learn to regard all who are found on this land family and to make them feel as at home as possible.

Amidst the celebrations in this time, perhaps it’s time we ask – “What kind of Singapore might we want to be?”

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This month, I am counting my blessings in this very space – thankful for the people, the place and the spirit of this nation. I have so much optimism for what lies ahead and hope in the people of this place. This is home, truly.

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Choose Wisely: The Choice Theory

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I would like to propose that we all be in search of our quality self. This evening is one spent at home recuperating after the weekend’s adventure, rather overwhelmed by the rollercoaster ride that the beginning of August has brought. The Strong Mind Fit Body team (our family) has braved ups and downs this week coordinating this weekend’s simultaneous East and West National Day Special! As if perfectly timed, the week drew a close to my latest read, Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom by Dr. William Glasser. In which, he introduces Choice Theory, which states the following:

1 | All we do is behave

2 | Almost all behavior is chosen

3 | We are driven by our genes to satisfy five basic needs (survival, love and belonging, power, freedom and fun)

It suggests that we should frame ourselves as beings in control of every experience in life and implies personal responsibility for our circumstances. Basically, “the only person whose behavior we can control is our own”. He acknowledges the value of our past and of our stimulus but attributes any consequential emotions or our perceived circumstances to our own choice – our choice to depress or to anger, our choice to tell ourselves the story of our being the way we do and our choice to respond accordingly. He applies Choice Theory in numerous contexts, from trusting one’s family to schooling and education, proving its applicability and effectiveness. Utterly convinced about the value of this theory, I am slowly but surely inculcating the takeaways from the read into my every day.

Allow me to illustrate Choice Theory in the context of school:

Dr. Glasser writes that what many American schools are offering is the experience of schooling and not of education. This, he suggests, is the reason why high school dropout rates are soaring and capable students are not performing. He qualifies that schooling “is destructive”. It “is a false belief enforced by low grades and failure”. It involves trying to make students “acquire knowledge or memorize facts that have no value for anyone, including students in the real world”. In contrast, his definition of a ‘quality school’ is one that offers an education, which “is best defined as using knowledge”. Though acknowledging that one must be aware of the knowledge (prized in schooling) before learning to apply it (important in an education), he criticizes schools that stop at just the awareness and emphasize on rote learning. This is a symptom of external control psychology, the opposite of Choice Theory.

We live in a society of external control psychology – where we are constantly blaming others for not being a certain way or complaining about things not going the fashion we hope. We utilize our influence to impose our expectations onto others and coerce one another to do things. We use emotional blackmail or guilt-trip, we incentivize and manipulate. We have been misled to believe that external control is the only way we can achieve our valuable goals of ‘success’, ‘harmony’ or ‘happiness’; but it is more often that in doing so, we obstruct these very same things we hope to achieve. Confused about how our intentions can get so lost in translation, we arrive at what we think is a dead end. There is no agreement or consensus in external control, only oppression and forcefulness. We have grown up this way – “spare the rod, spoil the child” or the positive-negative reinforcement systems are only the tip of the iceberg. The environment of our childhood, though, is no good excuse for abandoning the choice that we can make now – that is, to consciously deconstruct the present rather than the past and then make choices to improve this present.

We each have a quality world – an image in our heads of the world we would like to live in. It is an imagined future that is plausible but never guaranteed. Our everyday actions, thoughts and interpretations of happenings are shaped by this quality world that we are subconsciously (or sometimes, consciously) working towards. It is what shapes our choices. If a person exists within our quality world, we make decisions in hopes of keeping the person in our lives. Indeed for the majority, the quality world would involve important people in our lives and depict strong relationships with these people. The key then, as asserted by Dr. Glasser, is to practice Choice Theory with these people whom we want to keep so much; to constantly remind ourselves that “the only person whose behavior we can control is our own” and then choose. Choose not to force. I would like to propose that we all be in search of our quality self, where we apply Choice Theory and recognize what Dr. Glasser calls “personal freedom”. It seems ironic that in the privileged lives that we lead, we still find ourselves feeling as if we “have no choice”. There are societal norms, peer pressure; you can easily find manipulative information or advertisements and it is tempting to succumb to laziness. Let the environment decide. Choose to allow external factors determine our internal limits. Truly, though, these influencers are but influences. There is nothing more decisive than our personal freedom as individuals. The freedom to choose.

I dream of one day, living in a ‘quality community’ that Dr. Glasser describes. A community where we ask ourselves “Would this be helpful for the community?” before we act upon our thoughts instead of demanding for the reason the community is as such. We will no longer try to control one another to abide by what we believe to be right and instead, model the way with our actions that speak louder than our words. We will prioritize conflict resolution and relationship preservation above choosing to lose our temper. I would love to one day inspire a ‘quality community’, but for a start, I think I would strive to be my quality self.

PS Amongst the many adventures that August has already brought, one has been a reconnection with a friend of 5 years. It is difficult to describe how we met, but I would like to attribute some of the optimism I am having in the quality community I dream of to our recent reconnection. Here’s to hopes and dreams.

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