Children leap to their deaths

A WEEK during which four school-aged Hong Kong children jumped to their deaths from highrise buildings and an eight-year-old girl tried to kill herself by leaping from a fifth-floor window has put the territory's education and social welfare authorities under increased pressure to combat an alarming growth in child and teenage suicides.

The death of a 16-year-old schoolgirl who jumped from the 21st floor of a housing-estate building on Sunday morning, leaving a note to say that she was 'experimenting' rather than trying to kill herself, came after an 11-year-old girl, a 14-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl had all leapt to their deaths in the space of a few days.

The latest death took place as a public discussion forum, attended by psychologists, educationalists and experts, was meeting to assess the possible causes of the upsurge in child suicides among Hong Kong Chinese over the past year. Recent days have also seen the first signs that some parts of Hong Kong's news-hungry media, shocked by the fact that someone as young as eight could attempt suicide, leaving a note for her parents, have decided to give less prominence to the deaths for fear that the 'copy-cat' factor may be playing a significant role in the increase.

Since the school year started in September there have been 14 school-aged suicides and about 30 unsuccessful attempts. The first signs that the problem was growing came in the 1991-92 school year when there were 21 suicides and 46 attempts. This showed a big jump from three child suicides in 1990-91, one in 1989-90 and eight in 1988-89.

Ruth Lau, the principal inspector of the Education Department's psychological services section, said yesterday that a detailed investigation of last year's child suicides had shown that the majority had suffered family-related problems and in the final stages had become severely depressed, losing all self-esteem. The youngest was just 10 years old. Other psychologists have suggested that pressure to succeed in an allegedly elitist school system is a factor. However, the possible reasons that are cited for the suicides do not in themselves appear to be new, and there is no clear reason for the big upsurge.

For several months the Education Department has been involved in a campaign to encourage schoolchildren to seek help if they are facing difficulties, and to educate teachers to be on the look-out for warning signs from vulnerable children.

A Cantonese television programme, Value for Life, featuring Hong Kong teen idols such as Andy Lau, the film star, and Michael Chang, the tennis player, talking about how they overcame setbacks in their own lives, is being shown in all schools with follow-up discussions.

'Understanding Student Suicide' kits have been isued to primary and secondary school teachers with advice on early detection and crisis intervention and teachers' workshops were held at the end of December.

Leaflets have been produced to encourage parents to talk to and spend time with their children. Many psychologists have stressed the need for highly-pressurised Hong Kong families, living in crowded conditions in housing estates, where both parents are working, sometimes with two jobs each, to make time for communication within the family.

The fears that high-profile newspaper and television coverage may have prompted some suicides through immitation are having an impact on the reporting of the deaths, at least in the English media. The South China Morning Post, for instance, ran only four paragraphs on an inside page on Sunday's death, and last night there were no follow-up stories on the English evening television news channels.

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