An innovative study conducted by three doctors examining suicide rates among teenagers
It's not stress over grades but friction with parents and breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend that act as trigger
By Lee Hui Chieh
FRICTION with parents and breaking up with boyfriends or girlfriends are the main factors that push Singapore's under-20s over the edge.
Not so stress over school grades. In only three of the 28 youth suicides in 2001 was it a possible trigger, according to a study by three doctors. One was a nine-year-old girl.
The figures debunk the popular perception that pressure to do well in school is driving Singapore's young to the brink.
They also show that:
*more boys than girls (16 against 12) commit suicide
*all jumped off high-rise residential blocks
*almost half (13) were school dropouts, and
*three-quarters were aged between 14 and 19, with the youngest aged nine.
But the figures do not indicate a trend, said Dr Daniel Fung, adding that the annual average in the past five years is 20 youths.
Dr Fung, who presented the study at a recent Institute of Mental Health (IMH) conference, said suicide is usually caused by a mix of factors.
'But from our study, academic stress wasn't a major reason. It's usually relationship problems, especially with their parents.'
They could range from being reprimanded to being troubled by spats between their parents, said Dr Fung, deputy chief of IMH's department of child and adolescent psychiatry.
He identified these potential suicide sparks from coroners' reports, which he studied with Dr Chia Boon Hock, a private psychiatrist, and Dr Lynn Chiam of the National Healthcare Group.
The Samaritans of Singapore, which runs a help-line for troubled people, agrees with the findings. A spokesman said: 'From our research, two-thirds of the callers aged below 19 were troubled by problems with family members.'
Problems with boyfriends/girlfriends or peers came second (36 per cent) and problems at school or work ranked third (24).
However, for pre-teens, friction with friends is often the main cause of depression.
'A quarrel or losing their best friend can make them very sad and overwhelm them,' said social worker Christina Appadoo, coordinator of Tinkle Friend, a helpline for under-12s.
The final straw is not easy to spot, although there are tell-tale signs of a teen near the brink, said counsellors.
Sudden change of behaviour, like loss of interest in their favourite activities and poor school results, is one indicator. Those who have attempted suicide and suffer from depression are also at higher risk.
But the must-not-ignore signs are when they write farewell notes, call up friends to say goodbye, give away treasured belongings and behave secretively, said Dr Fung.
An American professor, who has studied global teen suicide trends for 20 years, said most suffer from depression for six months to two years before their deaths.
'Two main factors trigger suicides: getting into trouble, such as cheating, and losing a boyfriend or girlfriend,' said Professor David Shaffer, head of child and adolescent psychiatry at New York's Columbia University.
Prof Shaffer, who also spoke at the conference here, said if the signs are spotted early, professionals can step in. It can be as simple as getting teens to answer questions to test for depression.
But as many suicidal teens drop out of school, doctors here said the best way is to teach teens, in particular, how to recognise the signs.
Said Dr Fung: 'Educating their peers is the most important because who knows teenagers best? It's their friends.'
Posted on 2003-03-05