More vulnerable teens as stress levels increase

More vulnerable teens as stress levels increase
Photo: ST

More children and teens, aged 19 and below, have asked for help after considering suicide.

The Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) said that in 2013, they had 224 clients from this age group writing in to them through its E-mail Befriending Service, which is more popular among the younger age groups.

And of them, 163 clients, or 73 per cent, were considered to be at real risk of taking their lives.

The group is of concern for SOS because of the rise in the number of youngsters seeking help: they saw 65 more young people in 2013, compared with the year before.

Add to that the fact that a caller or writer to SOS can remain anonymous and not reveal his age and this number could be just the tip of a iceberg.

SOS executive director Christine Wong explained that young people were vulnerable because they may not have the resources to deal with pain and conflict.

"Many young people find it difficult to talk about their struggle and to express the pain they are feeling inside," she said.

"They tend to hide their pain behind a facade, not knowing where, how or who they can approach for help. Some may try to cope on their own in ways that can be harmful to themselves."

Clinical psychologist Claudia Ahl said: "Children may feel so overwhelmed by strong negative emotions, and feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, that they cannot see the bigger picture and are unable to think rationally."


Family relationship issues are the most common reasons cited by those who sought help, said Ms Wong.

Academic-related stress and depression are also common problems.

Teens also struggle with self-esteem and identity issues, including low self-worth, gender confusion and existential doubt, said consultant psychiatrist and medical director of The Resilienz Clinic, Dr Thomas Lee.

He said: "Children are facing increasing amounts of stress over the years, having to juggle schoolwork, tuition and loads of other co-curricular activities.

"They are further burdened by peer competition, as well as greater and sometimes unrealistic expectations from parents."

Dr Ong Say How, senior consultant and chief of Institute of Mental Health's child and adolescent psychiatry department said: "They also face higher expectations from all around - at home, in peer groups, in social media and in school."

With the increased use of social media, people in this age group also face additional social pressure, said Ms Vinti Mittal, 45, a counsellor at TenderAge Counselling.

Dr Lee said that one consequence is that children are exposed to all kinds of "undesirable and perilous material".

"They learn inappropriate methods to deal with problems. Some even turn to websites that promote suicide," he said.

SOS has set up its own research arm to "further strengthen evidence-based practice to look into information and findings that can aid local suicide prevention and intervention work... for the whole community".

He said it is important that society removes the stigma around suicide, especially the assumption that suicide is 'selfish' or 'attention-seeking'.

Early treatment helped teen improve

His parents divorced when he was in primary school.

The split devastated him so much that he fell into depression.

His world spiralled downwards - at home and in school, so much that he even harboured thoughts of suicide.

Psychiatrist Dr Thomas Lee, who recounted the case study, said his client was a 16-year-old student from a well-known secondary school.

Besides feeling depressed every day, the teen also suffered from insomnia, poor concentration, poor appetite and other symptoms of depression, said Dr Lee.

"He had very low self-esteem. He felt angry and negative about people and the world. Significantly, he harboured persistent suicidal thoughts."

He even immersed himself in a suicide forum.

Dr Lee said: "He did not have any intent to end his life. But he was at risk."

Luckily, his family stepped in and took him for professional assessment and treatment, which included medication and psychotherapy.

He has gone for treatment for two years now and is showing improvement.

"We taught him appropriate ways to handle stress and to manage his negative thinking," said Dr Lee.

The teen, too, has a safety plan.

A school counsellor attends to his case and the school has been understanding when he skipped lessons.

Samaritans of Singapore (SOS):1800-2214444
Singapore Association for Mental Health:1800-2837019
Sage Counselling Centre:1800-5555555
Care Corner Mandarin Counselling:1800-3535800

This article was first published on July 27, 2015.
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