The number of teenage suicides in Singapore is on the rise. Twenty-seven Singaporeans aged 10 to 19 killed themselves in 2015 –a 15-year high, and twice as many as the year before.
The high-profile suicide of an 11-year-old last year has put academic pressure under the spotlight again. Fingers have been pointed at the education system, for putting us in the rat race at an early age, and at demanding parents.
In the case mentioned above, the State Coroner said the boy’s death “underscores the importance for parents to be equipped with a ready appreciation for the unique challenges their child will face at each step of their academic pursuits”, Channel NewsAsia reported.
Those are the external pressures. But there are also students whose anxiety comes from the inside.
Amanda Lu was hospitalised just before her O-Level exams. She experienced hallucinations and concussion due to prolonged insomnia, resulting from stress.
“Nobody pressured me to think that I have to do well. The stress came from myself,” said Amanda, now 23. “But I felt I had to do well in order to make my parents proud.”
“I’ve put my security and worth in how well I perform, so I deeply fear not being able to meet my own expectations.”
Another student, who requested to stay unnamed, concurred. “The stress coming from my parents is only a small part of it. I just cannot bear the thought that I have to tell people my results suck, that I’m a noob when I know that I am not.”
This pressure to perform well follows many youths through into our adulthood, our careers. So while getting into a university is usually enough to satisfy our parents and relatives, it doesn’t always feel like it’s good enough for ourselves.
Said Jolin Phee, a university student: “The perfectionist in me tells me that I need to strive harder, even when no one else is telling me so. I think I’ve subconsciously put my security and worth in how well I perform, so I deeply fear not being able to meet my own expectations.”
This drove her to apply for direct school admission and, subsequently, an integrated programme so that she did not need to sit through any major exams – which meant she didn’t need to face up to the possibility of failure each year.
But when it was time to sit for her A-Levels – the first national-level exam she’d taken in her entire life – anxiety hit her like never before. She broke down many times, and even contemplated withdrawing from the exam.
Much of the pressure we face comes from the people around us, But how much of it comes from within? It seems that doing “decent” is no longer good enough. Many of us need to excel – not just because people expect us to, but because that’s where we gain our self-worth and validation.
A Nanyang Business School student who has attended prestigious schools her entire life told Thir.st: “I was known for my ability to do well in school. And I felt like I was losing my identity if I don’t.” (She also requested to remain anonymous.)
Stress can be positive. Stress can motivate us to do better. It can even boost our memory. But too much stress can be detrimental.
Perhaps this is why even students with good grades are committing suicide.
Stress can be positive. Stress can motivate us to do better. It can even boost our memory. But too much stress can be detrimental. So it is crucial to recognise what sort of stress works for us, said Roger Ong, a trained counsellor who deals with at-risk youth.
Every individual is different, said Roger, a Programme Manager at Calvary Community Care. “For example, my eldest daughter takes it easier when we push her. However, my second daughter, when pushed too hard, breaks down. No two people are alike.”
There’s no fixed rule of how we can identify “bad” stress but some common symptoms include insomnia, increase in irritability and inability to focus – basically any physical, emotional, cognitive, or behavioural abnormalities displayed, especially through an extended period of time.
But to get through this, we should fix our eyes on the STAR, said Roger.
HOW TO COPE WITH STRESS
S is for STRENGTH
We are all uniquely and differently talented. Some have a flair behind the camera lens, while others are natural in front of it. Some are musically inclined while others are better at sports. There is a wide diversity in talents, so why restrict and measure ourselves against the same yardstick? Identify what we can do – what we are good at — and pursue it, rather than focusing on what we cannot do.
T is for TENACITY
Determination is a quality that is lacking in our achievement-driven society, said Roger; we tend to give up when we face setbacks. However, we can teach ourselves to see things from a different perspective – that failure is not the opposite of success, but part of the roadmap to success. Seeing setbacks in this light will help us persevere, knowing failure is not the end of the journey.
A is for ACTIVITY
Distractions from our main sources of stress can help. For example, any form of exercise is a healthy distraction, because it releases endorphin and reduces stress hormones. Keeping fit builds up our physical health and helps to build up our resilience to stress in the long run too. For example, Amanda – the student who was hospitalised before her O-Levels – said she now often plays badminton to help fight stress.
R is for RELATIONSHIPS
Those who do not have a strong community or social network to fall back on are more prone to suicidal thoughts. The people around someone struggling with stress or depression are crucial. Try to share your struggles with friends or family, instead of keeping everything bottled within. Talking to a counsellor is also an option – most schools have one you can speak to confidentially.
There are many ways to cope with stress. But importantly, we need to recognise that our achievements (or failures) cannot form the basis of our identity.
Successes make for a shallow bed for us to anchor our identity in. Today’s success will be just a memory tomorrow – and what happens if you experience a setback then?
The world, with its dean’s lists and rich lists, may try to make you believe that identity is intricately linked to success, but appreciate that what makes you precious as a person goes beyond what you can or cannot do – or what score you manage on an exam.