With long study hours and heavy workloads, it is easy to blame the education system for a recent spate of student suicides. But experts say there are more fundamental causes that parents and educators should address.
Hong Kong has been shocked by a recent series of student suicides - and this isn't the first time. In February this year, five secondary school students took their lives in the course of just 17 days. Two others were rescued from attempted suicides.
Compared to other Asian countries such as South Korea and Japan, Hong Kong's suicide rate isn't unusually high. But the alarming frequency of students committing suicide since 2015 has prompted authorities to look at the struggles young people are facing. In 2016, Hong Kong's government set up a special committee to explore potential causes and create preventive measures to stop the situation from getting worse.
In an investigative report published by the Committee on Prevention of Student Suicides in November 2016, at least 24 percent of 38 cases of primary and secondary school student suicides showed "considerable stress related to learning."
Pressure to succeed
In a highly competitive learning environment, many students in Hong Kong spend most of their time studying. Although official school hours are on average six hours a day, the real studying time begins after school.
In a survey conducted by the Hong Kong Research Association in 2014, students in Hong Kong spend an average of 62 hours per week on studying. Apart from the six hours of learning at school, they also need more than five hours for doing homework, attending private classes and other learning activities.
Private classes, or tutorial lessons, are also known as shadow education. The practice is widespread not only in Hong Kong, but also in many Asian countries such as India and South Korea. According to a 2012 report published by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), 85 percent of high school students received shadow education in Hong Kong.
Private education has become so mainstream in Hong Kong that it has developed into a billion-dollar business. The ADB report finds that companies offering shadow education operate as chain stores with multiple locations and some are publicly listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. By 2016, there were more than 900 tuition centers focused on high school pupils.
Long study hours are not the only responsibilities students are expected to fulfill outside of school. There is also an endless list of extracurricular activities, which are supposedly voluntary and leisure activities that students participate in out of own interest. But this takes on a different meaning in Hong Kong.
Whether is piano, violin, ballet, tennis or swimming, parents believe that extracurricular activities open the door to higher-ranking schools and a brighter future. In a survey conducted by UNICEF Young Envoys in 2014, 90 percent of 363 parents said they had registered their children for extracurricular activities to increase their competitiveness. Some students in these surveys had to attend 10 or more of these activities every week.
"In Hong Kong, most people believe a degree from university equals one's career prospects. Those who can't enter universities would be regarded as 'losers'," Annie Cheung, co-founder of the non-profit organization Love Our Kids, told DW.
Tension arises between children and parents when academic results don't meet parents' expectations, which then also leads to miscommunication, Cheung added.
"Parents are spending less time with their children due to long working hours. If parents only focus on children's academic results, their children will feel they are neglected," Kate Ng from the NGO Samaritan Befrienders Hong Kong told DW.
The government's investigative report also found that "lack of family support and communications problems with parents contribute to youth suicide."
Ng's organization, which provides counseling services to people with suicidal tendencies, said they are concerned with the recent youth suicide problem and hope to reach out to at-risk youth by extending the service hours of online chat rooms.
Students in Hong Kong are facing extreme pressure from schools and parents and it raises the question if youth have the awareness necessary to cope with the ensuring mental health issues.
"Stigma on mental disorders is a social barrier that stops people who have suicidal thoughts from seeking help," said Ng. "Raising community awareness and breaking down taboos is important to make progress in preventing suicides."
According to Ng, the most effective way to prevent youth suicide is to foster self-awareness. "Students should learn to accept their limitation and appreciate themselves," said Ng.
As part of an effort to prevent student suicides, Cheung from Love Our Kids said the organization is trying to educate young people about the importance of acknowledging their emotions.
"They need to learn how to identify, accept and express their emotional problems," Cheung from Love Our Kids, told DW. "School education in Hong Kong only focuses on how to develop positive emotions, but we think that as human beings it is normal to have negative emotions, and the important thing is to learn how to face them," she added.