Teen attempts suicide 10 times in less than a year

SINGAPORE - This man, who can only be identified as James, and his daughter, who can only be identified as Mandy, leaving the District Court on 30 August 2012 after a judge sentenced Mandy to one year of probation.

Like all fathers, the last thing he wants is for something bad to happen to his daughter. But this 58-year-old dad is caught in an unusual and terrible dilemma.

In the past year, his teen daughter had tried to kill herself 10 times.

Fortunately, she never succeeded.

But now the law has caught up with her, and she is facing a possible jail sentence of up to a year, a fine or both.

The father, James, doesn't want her to go to jail, even though he's completely stressed out from having to keep his eyes on her all the time.

But keeping her in jail may, ironically, take that burden off him and save her from herself.

"What can the judge do to protect my precious girl?" a worried-looking James asked this reporter, as he sat and waited anxiously for the verdict in court on thursday.

James' daughter, Mandy, 18, faced 10 charges of attempted suicide between last August and May this year.

We are not giving Mandy's or her father's real names to protect her identity.

The District Court heard that she suffers from mental retardation and personality disorder.

On Aug 31 last year, Mandy had asked her father to take her to Bishan library to meet her friend.

When she arrived, she went to a supermarket and bought a box of paracetamol, an over-the-counter pain reliever. She swallowed the entire box of 20 pills and headed to meet her friend at the library.

When Mandy met her friend, she told her that she was not feeling well and asked her to take her to a hospital. She ended up in Tan Tock Seng Hospital.

A week later, Mandy attempted to kill herself again when she sat with one of her legs dangling over the ledge on the third storey of a multi-storey carpark at Kim Keat Avenue.

Fortunately, police and Singapore Civil Defence Force officers arrived in time to persuade her to move away from the ledge.

When Mandy was younger, she had slit her wrist in front of her Institute of Technical Education (ITE) classmates, James told The New Paper.

Because of the incident, he took her out of school.

Why did she do it?

Till today, James still does not know the answer, even though he is closest to her in the family, which includes his undergraduate son and wife.

Each time after she tries to take her life, she would feel so depressed that she'll break down and cry loudly, James told TNP in Mandarin.

"My heart aches every time I see her suffer," he added, burying his head in his hands.

James said that his relationship with his daughter has always been good. He recalled his daughter's first suicide attempt when she was in Secondary 1.

That happened in hospital. James had taken her there after she had fits and was shocked when he was told that his daughter had taken an overdose of her medication.

James said Mandy's subsequent suicidal attempts resulted in her dropping out of secondary school.

Mandy went on to pursue an education at the ITE.

But when she again attempted suicide by slitting her wrist in front of her classmates in school, James had to take her out again.

Mentally sound

He said: "Over the years, I have taken her to seek treatment at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), but I was told that she is mentally sound.

"She can't stay in IMH and I am unable to watch her 24/7 at home. I don't know what is a safe place for her to be in. I need to work as my family depends on me. There is no one to take care of her and I worry about her every time I leave the house for work.

"What can I do? I can only leave it to the judge to decide for me. It's her fate."

Mandy's case was one of the more unusual ones that the District Court heard yesterday.

District Judge Shaifuddin Saruwan said he "thought long and hard about it".

Before that, Assistant Public Prosecutor Dillon Kok, James and his daughter, were seen going in and out of chambers several times.

After about 90 minutes of waiting, Judge Shaifuddin sentenced Mandy to one year of probation on the condition that she continues to seek treatment at IMH and comply with all directions given by the psychiatrist.

He noted that Mandy was neither suitable for mandatory treatment order, nor was she recommended for probation.

Mr Kok had earlier suggested a short custodial sentence for Mandy, who had been in remand for the past 31/2 months.

Relief

Relief

After much deliberation, Judge Shaifuddin said: "I thought long and hard about it. I am convinced that what you require is truly treatment so that you will not reoffend by attempting suicide again.

"Notwithstanding the probation report, I will place you on probation and I will monitor your case personally."

Judge Shaifuddin added that Mandy's behaviour cannot be tolerated and she should refrain from such behaviour.

"If you feel stressed or troubled, I want you to call the psychiatrist or the probation officer," Judge Shaifuddin told the teen, who nodded in acknowledgement.

"If you breach the condition, you will be back before me and I will have to deal with you. I hope we do not have to come to that. I know you can do it."

Mandy is scheduled for a court review on Nov 29.

Outside the court, James appeared relieved that the judge had decided for him what is best for his daughter, even though he will not be able to stop worrying about her.

He told TNP: "My wife works long hours as a dish collector at a foodcourt and my son is studying for an engineering degree in a local university. I need to work to support my family. But I will do all I can to protect my little girl."

Last night, a chirpy Mandy told TNP over the phone that she was happy to be able to go home with her father on thursday.

"After I was released, I went home for a hot bath, then my father took me out for a haircut. And I had my favourite steak for dinner," said Mandy in Mandarin.

"I am grateful to the judge for the chance to start life afresh."

Don't nag or scold, just listen, say psychologists

Don't nag or scold, just listen, say psychologists

One of the best things to do when dealing with a chronically suicidal family member is to listen.

Don't nag, advise or scold them.

If family members cannot refrain from nagging or berating him, they should get a neutral third party - a counsellor, a relative or close friend - to communicate with the suicidal family member, counsellors told The New Paper.

Said Singapore Children's Society's youth services director, Dr Carol Balhetchet: "Ask one question and wait for the information to come. It may not come immediately, so be patient.

"Sometimes, parents just want to talk and advise, and when there is no change in the situation, they say, 'Aiyah, my child is a problem.'"

Agreeing, psychologist Daniel Koh of private practice Insights Mind Centre, said: "A lot of times, the family doesn't understand the person and they put expectations on the victim.

"Let it go. Instead, listen.

"You don't have to talk. Just be there for them."

To do this, you have to create the environment or opportunity, said Dr Balhetchet, a clinical psychologist.

One way would be to start going for walks together and making the walks a "habit".

"Let the person talk. The silence might be awkward, never mind, one day you'll get an answer," she said.

Agreeing, Mr Koh said it was important to give the suicidal family member a "sense of support, so that he or she will feel safe".

Said Mr Koh: "Suicidal people are very sensitive.

"They can tell if you're pretending or genuine, so if you can't stop yourself from scolding them, get a neutral third party who will not judge or label them."

Mr Koh noted that often, families start out with "a lot of concern", then after multiple suicide attempts, they get "numb".

He said: "They get frustrated and even threaten the person to snap out of it without understanding the cause of the problem.

"This could make the person depressed and the person could revert to taking drastic measures."

On the rise

Suicide attempts are on the rise here, although statistics from the Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) indicate that the number of people who succeed in their bids is falling, The Straits Times reported.

In 2010, 966 people were arrested for attempting suicide, up from 842 the year before.

SOS figures calculated the suicide rate here to be 7.85 suicides for every 100,000 people in 2010, down from 9.35 in 2009.

Overall, 353 people killed themselves here in 2010 and 401 did so the year before.

Dr Brian Yeo, a consultant psychiatrist at Mount Elizabeth Medical Centre, told The New Paper that families of chronically suicidal family members are often "caught in a bind".

He said: "Do they react every time he or she threatens to commit suicide? Do they keep watch over them or is this just a cry for help?

"But then again, just because he or she didn't commit suicide the first two times, doesn't mean it won't happen on the third."

One way to judge whether the suicide threat is serious is to look at the attempt itself, Dr Yeo said.

For instance, did the person take just a few pills or was it an overdose?

Did the person slit his wrists or try to jump off a building? These are serious indicators, he said.

The other important gauge is whether the suicide attempt was planned.

"Did they buy certain things before the event, like bleach? Did they leave a note? Did they try to avoid the discovery of their intentions?" he said.

But these are just a guide, Dr Yeo stressed.

All three experts advise family members that the safety of the suicidal family member is paramount and to call the authorities for help when dealing with a suicide attempt.

Helplines

Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444

Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019

Care Corner Mandarin Counselling Centre: 1800-353-5800

joycel@sph.com.sg

estherng@sph.com.sg

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