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Authorities keep ‘close watch’ on suicide rates as experts lay out risk factors for young adults

Authorities keep ‘close watch’ on suicide rates as experts lay out risk factors for young adults

File photo of a man sitting on steps and looking sad. (Photo: Try Sutrisno Foo)

SINGAPORE: People in their 20s are in a transitional phase of their lives – whether it is completing their education, starting their careers or dealing with relationships – and this could result in more stress factors that increase the risk of suicidal thoughts, said authorities and mental health experts.

A recent report by the Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) found that the number of suicides for those in their 20s remained the highest last year among all age groups.

In 2019, 71 people aged between 20 and 29 killed themselves, and suicide accounted for about one-third of all reported deaths in this age group.

READ: Number of suicides among those in their 20s highest in Singapore

Authorities said they keep a close watch on suicide rates in Singapore, noting the reasons why young adults may be a greater risk.

“During the period of youth adulthood from 20 to 29 years, individuals are completing their education, establishing their careers, or starting a family on their own. These transitions through different stages of life can be a time of great stress and flux in a person’s life,” said the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), the Ministry of Health (MOH) and the Ministry of Education (MOE) in a joint statement in response to CNA's queries.

“Without the necessary coping skills and support to navigate crises, failures and setbacks, some may develop feelings of hopelessness and pessimism that can culminate in suicidal attempts.”

The SOS statistics are in line with what psychologists have seen.

“Individuals in this age group tend to be undergoing multiple life transitions that can bring about associated psychosocial stressors,” said Dr Tracie Lazaroo, a clinical psychologist from Inner Light Psychological Services and LP Clinic.

“This can lead to an increased risk of developing depression and anxiety, especially within a culture where help-seeking for mental health issues is not common practice.”

IN FOCUS: The challenges young people face in seeking mental health help

In response to CNA’s queries, SOS said that common problems cited by people in their 20s were relationship issues, including family, friendships and romantic relationships, as well as difficulties coping with one’s mental health.

As those in their 20s are in the midst of developing their sense of identity, their social relationships play “a significant role as a protective factor to how one copes with life’s challenges”, said SOS chief executive Gasper Tan. As such, disputes in these “significant relationships” can be “unsettling”, he added.

PEER PRESSURE AND IMPULSE

This is also the period where people are starting to become “more independent”, said Mr Tan.

“The societal expectations of what success looks like often shapes how an individual measures achievements in various aspects of life such as career progression, educational achievements and romantic relationships,” he said.

The belief that they need to be “readily adaptable” and “capable in different areas of responsibility” may instil anxiety or fear in them, he added.

“Furthermore, as youths may tie their self-worth according to what may be most prevalent in the life stage they are currently in, failing to attain their desired outcome may aggravate feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness in times of crisis,” said Mr Tan.

Young adults might also compare themselves to peers as an “indicator of how well they are doing”, said Dr Lazaroo.

“In the last decade, social media has had an influence on how young adults perceive themselves in relation to others. This creates an environment that invites constant comparison with others that may not be necessary or healthy,” she said.

READ: 'I can only imagine the pain': The Samaritans who save people from taking their own lives

Associate Professor Swapna Verma, senior consultant and chief of the department of psychosis at the Institute of Mental Health, added that impulsivity could play a role in suicide attempts.

“In young persons, the brain is still developing, and the centres that regulate decision-making and self-control are not fully developed until the age of about 25. Thus, people in this age group tend to be more impulsive compared to other stages of their life,” Assoc Prof Verma said.

“The impulsivity, when coupled with the stressors they already face, may make them more likely to act on their suicidal thoughts and contribute to suicidal attempts.”

SUPPORTING YOUNG PEOPLE

MSF, MOH and MOE said they keep a “close watch” on suicide rates in Singapore, and implement various programmes to address mental well-being among young people. 

Noting that the underlying causes of suicide are complex, the ministries said they take a “multi-pronged approach” which includes building resilience, reducing stigma, as well as identifying and supporting those at risk of suicide.

In mainstream schools, the Character and Citizenship Education lessons will be revised next year to spotlight mental health education. Students will be taught how to recognise common mental health issues and symptoms and know when and how to seek help.

“Similarly, the IHLs (institutes of higher learning) have curricular and co-curricular mental wellness programmes and activities for students, which incorporate mental wellness literacy or awareness talks and workshops,” said the ministries.

“Most mainstream schools and IHLs also have peer support efforts to encourage students to look out for one another, and encourage a peer in distress to seek help from trusted adults, parents, teachers or counsellors. We are on track to have a peer support structure and culture in place in all schools by 2022.”

READ: Mental health support service for at-risk youths to be launched this year: MOH 

The ministries added that they also work with various government agencies and community partners.

One initiative is the Youth Mental Well-being Network formed in February, supported by MOH, MOE and MSF, to build on the work of agencies and ground-up community groups to “strengthen our ecosystem of support”, said the ministries.

This is on top of efforts by social service agencies like the Singapore Association for Mental Health, TOUCH Community Services and Fei Yue Community Services which offer helplines and counselling to support those in need.

The National Council of Social Service (NCSS) has other initiatives including the Beyond the Label Movement in 2018 to address stigma towards those with mental health conditions, as well as the Youth Alliance in September 2019 to support young people and encourage them to seek help.

NCSS also launched an interactive helpbot called Belle through Facebook messenger and iMessage, which provides 24/7 access to information about helplines and mental health services for users of all ages.

“Raising awareness and reducing the stigma of mental health issues are critical to encourage and normalise help-seeking behaviour,” said the ministries. “Early detection and intervention are key, and people struggling with emotional problems, mental health issues or suicidal thoughts should be encouraged to seek help.”

Where to get help: Samaritans of Singapore operates a 24-hour hotline at 1800 221 4444, or you can email pat [at] sos.org.sg. If someone you know is at immediate risk, call 24-hour emergency medical services.

Source: CNA/cc(gs)

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