World / Reporter's Journal

Families, schools need to step in and help youth at risk of suicide


Chang Jun

(China Daily USA)
Updated: 2016-03-15 04:46

One year after 18-year-old Henry Lee, a high school student in Palo Alto, California, killed himself due to clinical depression, his father hosted a talk a few weeks ago with Chinese-American parents to discuss how society, schools and families can better use resources to help vulnerable teens.

Families, schools need to step in and help youth at risk of suicide

Lee's seminar and advices come in a timely manner. Thousands of miles away from Palo Alto, 23 young people in Hong Kong have taken their lives since the start of this academic year. The seven most recent cases had occurred within nine days. The numbers have alarmed the University of Hong Kong's Center for Suicide Research and Prevention.

On March 10, the Hong Kong Education Bureau called a meeting with key stakeholders and announced a series of emergency measures, including improving student counseling support on campus, holding seminars to help teachers and parents identify problematic behaviors of students sooner, and forming a committee to come up with recommendations on preventative solutions in six months.

As some blame the pressure-cooker education system and Asian-American families' pursuit of academic excellence, experts believe complex factors such as spending too much time in virtual worlds and a lack of peer interaction could be contributing to the problem of teen suicide.

Teen suicide is a growing health concern worldwide. It is the third-leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24, surpassed only by homicide and accidents, according to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Causes of suicidal distress can be triggered by psychological, environmental and social factors. Suicide risk-factors vary with age, gender, ethnic group, family dynamics and stressful life events; mental illness, however, is the leading risk factor.

In Henry Lee's case, "he provided a light to those around him and always found a way to make people laugh," recalled his father, who added that many of the young man's intimate friends and close family members couldn't associate Henry with depression and suicide.

A talented cyclist, artist and musician, Henry was an advocate for others who suffered as well, providing comfort to friends with shared experiences. Despite his own condition, he wanted to pursue a college degree in linguistics and wished to perform research in psycholinguistics to help detect early stages of depression by assessing lingual expression in others.

Though he sought and received medial treatment and support from his family, Henry ultimately took his own life on Jan 24, 2015. Henry's father urges anyone in a similar situation to seek help and support as early as possible.

"Don't feel shameful if your child has depression; don't hide it and pretend everything is just fine," Henry's father said at the seminar in Silicon Valley. "We hope to raise awareness for mental health and to prevent teen suicide universally."

Screening programs have proven to be helpful because research has shown that suicidal people show signs of depression or emotional distress, according to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Referrals can be made for treatment, and effective treatment can be employed when signs are observed in time. Intervention efforts for at-risk youth can put them in contact with mental health services that can save their lives.

"Teen suicide is preventable. Family is a buffer against stress for children and teenagers," said Xie Gang, school psychologist with the Fremont Unified School District. "Let our children know that parents are always here to help and support, so they won't go extreme when dealing with difficult times."

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