Suicide Survivors and Suicide Prevention

Guest-of-Honour Address at International Survivors of Suicide Loss (ISOS) Day by Samaritans of Singapore, 21 November 2020

Thanks much for the kind introduction, Gasper (CEO, Samaritans of Singapore).

Good morning everyone. Thank you all for being here. I’m humbled by Gasper’s and SOS’ invitation to be here with you on this special day of learning, of healing, and of connection and community.

Before I start, please let me first apologise to you as suicide survivors if I should say anything that could be insensitive or triggering, in this short address. Please know that I come from a place of learning and love.

Now, in the spirit of connectedness, could I invite you all to take 3 deep breaths with me as we come together not just in person virtually, but also in presence and community? Thank you.

I was holding deep gratitude in my meditation this morning. Because I would not have, in a million years, thought that that deep dark place that I was in 14 years ago from a broken heart, a broken marriage and a broken business leaving me with only $16 would set me off on such an unexpected trajectory of mental health advocacy that would land me to be in the Parliament of Singapore as a Nominated Member of Parliament for two years championing for mental wellbeing to be a whole-of-government and whole-of-society priority, and specifically presenting the first-ever suicide prevention motion in Parliament in March this year.

It is said that a loss through suicide is like no other. The loss happens in time, in fact in a moment, but its aftermath lasts a lifetime. In the years since, as I meet suicide survivors, I got to learn more about this deep grief that you all share, some researchers have also called suicide bereavement complicated grief.

Some have described their grief journey as guilt that never goes away. Like the young taxi driver who shared with me about his 87 year old grandfather falling to his death by climbing up the flower pot racks along his HDB corridor after his breakfast. He said he wished he had asked the grandpa to stay and chat at the table a bit longer.

Others like Linda Collins, whom I’ve had the pleasure to meet earlier this year, have described it as incurable because it’s not an illness. She wrote in her compelling book Loss Adjustment that, “Grief is an extension of love, and if you loved your child, you can’t stop loving them and therefore you can’t stop grieving.”

I’ve also learnt that grief journeys for suicide survivors can be isolating even as a family grieves together because our grief is as individual as our unique relationship with the person we lost.

We all now know from the suicide-bereaved parents of the Please Stay Movement how grief can also be transformative.

This leads me to the relentless and remarkable work on suicide prevention, especially amongst the youth, that the Please Stay Movement has been singularly focused on since they launched late last year. I commend them on the great strides they’ve made engaging the relevant stakeholders to make change and raising public awareness in this alarmingly underestimated challenge we have. We see it all around us.

My favourite cousin, Lewis, who lives with major depression, mild bipolar disorder and mild schizophrenia has attempted suicides many times over the years — he’s only 36. My beloved 18 year old nephew, Jordan, has had several self harm incidents. My awesome team mate, Vincent, had his leg over the parapet of a 15th floor HDB flat 10 years ago when he was just 19 and was saved by a call from a friend.

A young lady, I’ll call her Lucy, reached out and shared her struggles with me earlier this year. “I have been witness to a suicide, I have lost a friend to suicide, and I struggle with suicidal ideation on a near daily basis. It cost me my university education, landed me in tens of thousands of debt, and left me with little means to earn enough to pay back my study loan and survive on my own. I will likely never be able to earn more than $1000/month, and will likely take my life than die of other causes in the near future.”

Other than Lucy, there were 46 more people who came forward to share with me about their experiences with suicide, among the 395 respondents of the public consultation on mental health conducted by my team of volunteers for the Budget 2020 debates. Like Lucy and the many near and far ones who have reached out to me, each and every one of their stories was heartbreaking to know, as they agonised over their struggles to live.

It’s why, in that parliamentary motion, I asked for the Government to urgently institute a national suicide prevention strategy as a goal towards suicide reduction and even eradication because one suicide is one death too many. According to WHO, such a strategy is important as it indicates a government’s clear commitment to prioritising and tackling suicide, while making resources available for necessary interventions whether in schools, workplaces and communities.

We also need to reframe our discourse on suicides. It is a common fear that talking about suicide could encourage suicidal behaviour. Youths have shared with me that schools often try to keep quiet about students who died due to suicide, but this backfires as students are often already in the know about their peers’ mental health and suicidal ideations. The expert consensus is that to have a chance at preventing suicide, we must talk about suicide responsibly.

We must also recognise that there are social and environmental factors embedded within our society and structures that also contribute to an individual’s intention to self harm or suicide. Intense feelings of hopelessness can also arise from sudden and adverse life events including unemployment, trauma and the loss of loved ones. Not every suicide is a result of mental illness, nor is someone with mental illness always suicidal.

Lastly, we must take the lead in recognising that suicide is far from a selfish choice, and cannot be blamed on the individual. Decriminalisation of suicides is a step in the right direction in combating the stigma, and so is the recent recommendation by the MediShield Life Review Committee to include self-inflicted injuries for claims.

That night 14 years ago, as I laid down on the floor grieving the loss of the life as I knew it, I was so awashed with shame and despair that for a fleeting moment, I even contemplated the distance between the big windows of my 18th floor apartment and the ground below. It seemed impossible then to get out of that deep dark place but I did because of the support system and inner resources I had, and still have. Everybody deserves that but not everyone has that.

We are responsible for each other’s well being. I am committed and determined to do whatever I can to continue pushing for more to be done for mental health and suicide prevention with equally committed folks like SOS, Please Stay and many more. We must come together to build a society that cares because every life matters.

Someone once said, the person who suicide, dies once — those they left behind die a thousand deaths. Your grief is not a sign of weakness, nor a lack of faith; it’s the price of love. It therefore never ends but it changes, it’s a passage.

As the famous grief experts, Elizabeth Kulber-Ross and John Kessler, said, “The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will never get over the loss of your loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again, but you will never be the same. Not that you should be the same, nor would you want to.”

I hope you reach out and give yourself permission to receive the love and support around you to live with the grief and be transformed by it when you are ready. On this International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day, I wish for nothing more than for you to find comfort and healing in the connections that you will make here today as a community. Thank you for your courage and generosity to show up for yourself, and for each other by attending this event.

And thank you so much for listening. May you all stay safe and be well.

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Anthea is a Nominated Member of Parliament who served during Singapore’s 13th Parliament (2018–2020). During her tenure she championed multiple social issues most notably mental health and was appointed member of the Tripartite Oversight Committee for Workplace Health by the Minister of Health in 2019.

A former banker, Anthea was recently a regional Managing Director with a UK-listed company where she also double-hatted as the Asia Lead of the Global Corporate Responsibility Board. Prior to that, she held key leadership roles with organizations such as Pearson Plc, the New York Institute of Finance, Terrrapin Group and United Overseas Bank.

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

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