Parliamentary Question, 3 Feb 2020
Ms Anthea Ong asked the Minister for Education in the last three years (a) how many students (i) attempted suicide (ii) died by suicide or (iii) suffered from self-harm; (b) how many of these students were (i) seeing school counsellors (ii) referred to mental healthcare professionals, broken down into the types of services and institutions and (iii) from the elite schools versus neighbourhood schools; © what is the protocol given to (i) students (ii) teachers (iii) school administrators and (iv) counsellors when they learn from a student who shares his suicidal ideations or self-harm behaviour; (d) how does the Ministry balance between safeguarding confidentiality and involving the student’s family; and (e) what is the protocol for post-suicide intervention, including for family.
Mr Ong Ye Kung: We know how Ms Anthea Ong feels strongly about this issue. MOE is deeply concerned about the mental well-being of students too. Parents, teachers, counsellors and peers need to work together to look out for students in distress and reach out to support them.
But I am not sure if it is useful to cite all the data that Ms Anthea Ong asked for. If the purpose of the data is to persuade MOE to treat the issue seriously, I want to assure Ms Ong that MOE does not need persuasion, because schools are at the frontline in confronting this issue. On the other hand, tabulating and publicising such data can have other implications, such as heightening suicide risk in vulnerable youths. I may be paranoid, but I do not want to treat this lightly.
But if I may just cite one data, which is the incidence rate of suicides from ICA. Their data for young persons aged 10 to 19 shows that over the past three years, from 2016 to 2018, incidents per 100,000 persons were 4.2, 2.7 and 4.4. The 2019 numbers are not yet available. In general, our suicide numbers are not high by international standards.
On the protocol of handling cases, our trained teachers and school personnel will try to build a bridge to the child while ensuring his/her safety and well-being. They also work closely with parents and care-givers, and engage professional or emergency assistance, when necessary. Schools are also supported by specialist teams from MOE HQ and other agencies when needed.
We treat the information related to the counselling of our students with confidentiality. However, in the managing of suicide related cases, we will share pertinent information with relevant individuals, including parents and mental health professionals, when necessary. This is aligned to the professional practices of counsellors, psychologists, medical personnel, in handling cases involving the possibility of harm to self and others.
When there is a suicide, our school personnel will need to identify those who may be emotionally affected, and render the appropriate support according to their needs. We need to watch out for possible suicide contagion and intervene when necessary. As for the bereaved families, it is most difficult. We can only do our best to be supportive, to listen and do whatever that is within our means to help. We also partner community agencies, such as SOS, which specialises in rendering such support to the bereaved. Grieving involves many stages. There may be a stage where the bereaved needs someone to blame, and if it is the school, so be it.
Ultimately, our schools is a major line of defence against youth suicides. For most, schools are where they find friends, learn, enjoy growing up, and find support and a listening ear in teachers. This is one of many quiet missions of our schools, and we will welcome partners to work with us.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament. (A Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) is a Member of the Parliament of Singapore who is appointed by the President. They are not affiliated to any political party and do not represent any constituency. There are currently nine NMPs in Parliament.)
The multi-sector perspective that comes from her ground immersion of 12 years in different capacities helps her translate single-sector issues and ideas across boundaries without alienating any particular community/group. As an entrepreneur and with many years in business leadership, it is innate in her to discuss social issues with the intent of finding solutions, or at least of exploring possibilities. She champions mental health, diversity and inclusion — and climate change in Parliament.
She is also an impact entrepreneur/investor and a passionate mental health advocate, especially in workplace wellbeing. She started WorkWell Leaders Workgroup in May 2018 to bring together top leaders (CXOs, Heads of HR/CSR/D&I) of top employers in Singapore (both public and private) to share, discuss and co-create inclusive practices to promote workplace wellbeing. Anthea is also the founder of Hush TeaBar, Singapore’s 1st silent teabar and a social movement that aims to bring silence, self care and social inclusion into every workplace, every community — with a cup of tea. The Hush Experience is completely led by lovingly-trained Deaf facilitators, supported by a team of Persons with Mental Health Issues (PMHIs).
Follow Anthea Ong on her public page at www.facebook.com/antheaonglaytheng