An earlier abridged version of this post has been replaced by this complete one since 24/8/2016 3PM.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