Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) reported 397 suicides in 2018 – a year-on-year increase of 10%. Almost a quarter was by youths. Photo by Goh Rhy Yan on Unsplash.

He was a university student. He’d been to see the counsellor thrice, for anxiety arising from academic stress.

He never showed up for the fourth appointment.

He pulled the plug on his life successfully – even after telling his mother exactly what he was going to do, she wasn’t able to stop him.

Could anyone have stopped him?

His counsellor’s response: “It’s difficult even when you know it and you are literally there to stop it. You can’t.”

More than 90 youths took their life last year.

Suicide is a decision and, as with any decision, the person’s mind could be absolutely made up.

There were nearly 400 such decisions last year.

Statistics released by Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) in July reported 397 suicides in 2018 – a year-on-year increase of 10%. Almost a quarter, or 94 to be exact, were by youths aged 10 to 29.

Of those, the number of male teens (aged 10-19) spiked to 19, the highest since 1991.

These figures reflected deaths classified as suicide and do not include those listed as “unnatural death” after inconclusive investigations.

Hopeless, lonely, powerless

“It is often when people reach such a low point that they have lost all hope, that they contemplate suicide,” says SOS chairman Lee Sook Fung in the organisation’s most recent annual report.

Whether Christians were among these numbers is not charted but counsellors from three faith-based organisations Salt&Light spoke to confirmed that believers have contemplated, and committed, suicide too.

The issues they see most often are academic expectations and personal relationships – anger over divorce and family violence, hurts from untenable boy-girl relationships, shame from loss of scholarships.

The issues they see most often are academic expectations and personal relationships.

And it always boils down to three things: Hopelessness, loneliness, powerlessness.

“Within their world view, they feel that there is a hopeless future. Whatever they do, nothing will resolve whatever the problem they encounter. Whether it’s school, whether it’s a family issue, there are no more options,” says Kevin Ngan, chaplain at Oldham Hall, a boarding facility run by Anglo-Chinese School for local and international students aged between 12 and 19.

The lonely feels no one understands, he explains. For instance, they will say: “You have two parents, right? Your parents are still together, right? You’re not in the second family, right? Then sorry, you will never understand me.”

The sense of powerlessness also shows itself up in increasing isolation, even among those who profess to be Christians. They may look around and see others in the midst of personal struggles and say, “I’m not as strong as them” or “They’re better people”.

Bottling it up

Ngan elaborates: “Everyone suffers from different levels of circumstance. Some circumstances are a huge surprise – they’re hit with something they’ve never encountered before, of a magnitude that they’ve never even contemplated about.

“And that drives them into one of the three: I’m hopeless. No one understands me now. And worse, I don’t have the power to overcome.

“When that happens, suicide contemplation and attempt start to merge.”

The issues counsellors see most often are academic expectations and personal relationships. Photo by Verne Ho on Unsplash.

On why such tunnel vision develops, Chong Ming Li from Faith Methodist Church offers: “If all we experience growing up is through the lens of instant gratification, we somehow view life as needing to be without struggles… the belief that pain is to be avoided at all cost is damaging to the soul.”

It is at this point especially, Ngan warns, that the idea of self-help is “the most dangerous one”. If a person has suicidal thoughts, an unsound argument might be: “Don’t worry. All you’ve got to do is read a book, try meditative thoughts – all these things.”

“The belief that pain is to be avoided at all cost is damaging to the soul.”

But the more they keep it in, the more dangerous the results are, he notes.

More worrying is the group of people for whom “keeping it in” is a self-imposed discipline, such as the accomplished young person who has an image to upkeep.

Chong, who is a pastoral team member in charge of Faith’s counselling arm, describes younger leaders in church who may have their own set of issues but are not readily obvious.

“Out there when they are putting on that role of youth leader, they can do everything. They can serve, they can lead, they can shepherd – amazing! They can even preach.

“They have head knowledge – all the verses. It’s scary, because you will never know (something is wrong).”

“Is it because I don’t have enough faith?”

Yet those that do reach out may not always find the help they need.

Chong recalled a story of a youth she counselled who tried to share with her parents how she felt about a mistake they’d made. The response she got was: “Why are you so irritating? It’s just a small matter.”

All she wanted was for them to say sorry but she ended up feeling: “What’s the point of sharing with them? They don’t get it.”

“The point is can we allow them to feel safe in expressing all these emotions – the anger, the hurts, the questions?” asks counsellor Chong Ming Li. Photo by Andrew Le on Unsplash.

It’s a reaction of pure emotion, but that’s where much of the nitty-gritty lies. “It’s not so much of the practical,” says Chong. “It’s really how they can be supported, and what they really need when they ask for help – if they pick up the courage to ask for it.”

Sometimes, this becomes a double whammy for Christians.

Chong observes that when the youth open up to other Christians, their own faith – or lack of – ends up being questioned. They may be asking: “If God loves me, why is this happening to me?” The response? You have to have faith.

“We need to give them permission to be angry with God, to question God.”

This inadvertently ends up with the youth asking in a kind of circular argument within themselves: “Is it because I don’t have enough faith, that’s why this is happening to me?”

But to Chong, that is not even the point: “The point is can we allow them to feel safe in expressing all these emotions – the anger, the hurts, the questions?”

She tells of an 18-year-old who seemingly had it all together – a good student, a church leader. “It just happened. And the parents never found out why. But she did leave a note to say sorry and that it’s not their fault.” It’s just me, she’d penned.

“We need to give them permission to be angry with God, to question God. In our Bible, we have prophets thinking of suicide even after experiencing great miracles!” (1 Kings 19:4)

Undoing the scripts

There are no easy answers to the questions of prevention and intervention. And while the biblical tenets of faith, hope and love (1 Corinthians 13:13) offer the foundations of a solution, building on these is still a work in progress.

Honest conversations and breaking through the false veneers, then, are perhaps a good start.

Honest conversations and breaking through the false veneers are a good start.

Focus on the Family CEO Joanna Koh-Hoe explains: “When you are talking about how we come in and mitigate, I think it involves a lot of intentional parenting just to undo or address some of the scripts that have already been spoken into our children’s lives – maybe not by us, it may have been spoken by general culture or other people.”

Advocating establishing protective measures, rather than reducing risk factors, around a young person’s life, she notes: “Family support comes in the form of good communication in the home, a feeling of good relational bonds with parents.

“Our kids need to be able to come to us when they have any issues, any concerns.” However, she advises: “We need to make time because no child is going to sit down with you and have these deep conversations about life.”

Ultimately it’s about relationships. At Oldham Hall, Ngan describes different levels of relationships among the students.

“Our kids need to be able to come to us when they have any issues, any concerns.”

“At Level 1, a person is an acquaintance known by name. Level 2 is knowing his birthday, where he goes to school, his schedule.  

“Level 3 is when they are able to openly share with you their beliefs: I don’t believe in God, I believe in God; what makes me happy; what are my interests. Level 4 is when they are open to hearing yours.”

At Level 5, they share their convictions.

As time and effort is invested in progressing the relationship from one level to the next, that’s also when a youth might come forward on a breakthrough day with: “You’re always checking up on us, I share with you something. Yeah, I don’t deserve to live … ”

Friends: “The first layer”

Youth that feel they can’t confide in the adults would often much rather talk to their friends, who might be in the same boat and facing the same issues.

Chong names friends as “the first layer” in intervention. Native to social media, they are often the ones with the more practised eyes that notice something is “not quite right”.

“People will disappoint you all the time but God will never disappoint you.”

“The person might leave some comments on their Instagram. They might have some photos that indicate something is out of the norm.”

For Ngan, friends provide the camaraderie that plays a big part in the healing process – in particular, peers in similar predicaments. It reminds them that they’re not the only ones with the problem.

It helps even more if these hurting people are able to say that they’ve found peace in Jesus.

“No counsellor or chaplain is as effective,” says Ngan. The youth would say: “We’ll take it on your good authority that what you’re saying about Jesus is true. But I don’t believe.”

Yet when they see that a fellow youth who’s also suffering and has found help in Jesus, it makes a difference.

And that’s when they’d say: “I really don’t want to read your Bible, but I want whatever he is having. He has this ‘peace’ thing. He can sleep at night, he doesn’t have nightmares.”

“Fundamentally, connection is the key to helping them.”

Chong adds: “Fundamentally, connection is very important. It’s the key to helping them. It provides hope – the connection with us, the connection with God. God is all-powerful. Just like that, He can turn the person’s life around.

“People will disappoint you all the time but God will never disappoint you. People will leave you all the time but God will never leave you. (Joshua 1:5)

“That’s very hope-full, because at least you have one person, God Himself, who created you and you can call as your Father, your Friend, Redeemer, everything.

“If you really have that kind of a connection, then I would say the fear would be gone, hope will come.”

Editor’s note: The counsellors interviewed for this story expressed their personal views, which may not necessarily be representative of the views of the organisations they work for.

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Where to find help

If you’d like to speak to someone, help is available at the following centres:

  • Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) 24-hour Hotline: 1800 221 4444 or [email protected]
  • Institute of Mental Health’s 24-hour Hotline: 6389 2222
  • Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800 353 5800
  • Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800 283 7019

And if you know someone who is at immediate risk, do reach out to emergency medical services.

About the author

Emilyn Tan

Emilyn once spent morning, noon and night in a newsroom in the US, then in the Mediacorp office in Singapore. She gave it up to spend morning, noon and night at home, in the hope that someday she’d have an epiphany of God with His hands in the suds, washing the dishes too.