Hong Kong (AsiaNews). In recent weeks, there has been discussion around the territory of Hong Kong about the discomfort being felt by young people. The matter has arrived all the way to parliament as part of a special panel discussion.
The debate is triggered by a chronic fact. One fifteen year-old student, Yip Ting-sin, is the latest example: She took her life this past Nov. 11. There are still more cases. In the very same school three other students committed suicide in the last two years.
The Permanent Secretary for Education and Personnel, Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun, commented on the tragedy by defining young students who kill themselves as " cowards, selfish, weak and irresponsible." A bitter controversy ensued.
Fanny Law, accused of being insensible and incapable of removing the causes of child suicide from within the school system, had to re-explain herself.
Her intention was that of disputing a certain "romanticizing" of suicide by children, in that they begin perceiving suicide as a "heroic" and "courageous" act. Even the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong's main English langue daily, while criticizing Fanny Law's "sad choice of words" recognized the need to dispute a culture indulging in teen-age suicide (cf. Nov. 14 Editorial). Hau Kit-tai, director of the Department of Psychology at Hong Kong's Chinese University, and Lam Seung-wan, primary school superintendent, also both sustain Fanny Law's tough approach: "In the past, government workers and public opinion blamed parents and teachers for suicides. This approach is very dangerous, as it encourages children to feel victimized and thus 'vindicate themselves' with suicide." (Mr. Hau, SCMP, Nov. 12)
Educational system under accusation
However, a vast large majority has reversed their opinion, as revealed recently in newspapers, thereby stigmatizing Law's tough stance on suicide. Fanny Law, in fact, was sent to seek forgiveness from the poor girl's family. She even was asked to quit her job as director of a school system seen as responsible for provoking psychological and emotive discomfort that lead to suicide.
Hong Kong schools are charged with being part of merit-based system. It is a system heavily focused on exams whose results grant students and greater or lesser access to better schools. All this creates enormous anxiety and pressure on students. Teaching is still based on an exasperating form of notionalism and competition In the opinion of some critics, 11 year-olds are already labeled as intelligent or derided as stupid. And according to the South Morning China Post (see: 14 Nov. Editorial), there have been improvements in primary schools, but not enough.
Many families complain that in Hong Kong classes are overcrowded, with teachers who must use microphones in order to be heard. Teachers are not well prepared, above all in terms of relationships, and thus face lessons in state of anxiety. They feel incapable of facing a job that is greater than they can handle.
In overpopulated council homes, where the majority of children live, there is not the space and silence necessary for them to concentrate on their studies. In such poor districts, families are gravely afflicted by the economic crises, and their problems are a heavy burden to children. Like all children around the world, they also suffer from difficulties related to emotional relationships and affection with others of the same age. Yet, it is reported that in Hong Kong educators lack the time and availability to listen to children, who easily view themselves as alone and misunderstood.
Statistics on discomfort
The debate these days has revealed many statistics, illustrating the vast discomfort experienced by adolescents. In the last two years there have been 27 suicides reported in primary and secondary schools (a statistic no worse that in other parts of the word). Yet one third of students have contemplated suicide and 90% of students suffer symptoms of stress such as emotional instability, lack of direction in life, fatigue, insomnia, head-aches, loss of appetite, indigestion, etc. The problem of discomfort has worsened over the last two years, also on account of the economic recession afflicting many families.
According to Natlie Tong, of Hong Kong University's Suicide Prevention Center, 70% of children that kill themselves have mental problems. Ms. Tong criticizes Fanny Law's analysis: Rather than define suicide as an act of selfishness or personal failure, she says we need to understand the complexity of their emotional, psychological disturbances.
Resources offered to confront the problem are completely inadequate. There are, in fact, only 80 psychologists for 1200 schools. Some psychologists cover 30 schools, making emergency counseling impossible. The large majority affirm that the duty of public administrators is not to blame those who suffer from discomfort, but rather to reform the school system, help families in difficulty, and offer more resources for prevention and support in schools.
At any rate, during the parliamentary discussion panel, the government defended itself by affirming that it is thanks the Health Ministry's contribution of councilors in schools that over 500 children escaped suicide during the last three years.