High-rise housing in Hong Kong. Photo: iStock / Getty
High-rise housing in Hong Kong. Photo: iStock / Getty

A subject not easily broached in most societies, suicide is a particularly difficult topic to discuss openly in Chinese culture, where talking about death in general is traditionally taboo. Even in cosmopolitan Hong Kong it’s an issue that is rarely afforded the platform – or the resources – it merits, with government efforts to raise awareness and provide support often criticized for being inadequate, ham-fisted and out of touch, while suicide-prevention NGOs and charities such as the Samaritans are often effective yet underfunded.

But a spike in student suicides in Hong Kong over the past 18 months, including a spate of five schoolchildren aged between 13 and 16 taking their own lives from February 5-21 this year, has dragged the issue inescapably into the public eye and heaped pressure on the government, and in particular the Education Bureau, to tackle the problem with something more than token measures.

Despite setting up the ‘Committee on Prevention of Student Suicides’ in March 2016, the government’s response thus far has been underwhelming. In its final report, submitted in November, the Committee found that “there is no substantial direct link between student suicides and the education system.” And on February 23, Secretary for Education Eddie Ng announced the government’s intention “to build a new culture in schools” in which “mutual caring will be important,” without offering specific details of how that goal might be achieved.

Moreover, while student suicides in Hong Kong have garnered the headlines, they represent only around 2% of the city’s annual suicide statistics (23 aged 10-19 out of a total of 1,022 deaths in 2015), with the most at-risk demographics being the over 70s (roughly 20%), 50-59 (19.5%) and 40-49 (roughly 16%) – suggesting that there is much work to be done in other areas of society, too.

Against this backdrop, an Ireland-based suicide awareness and prevention charity is launching its inaugural Hong Kong event on May 6. Founded in 2006 to offer free counselling to the suicidal and those who have been bereaved by suicide, Pieta House has been drawing attention to the subject and raising funds through its annual Darkness into Light marches since 2009. What began with around 400 people walking a 5km course at dawn in Dublin’s Phoenix Park has quickly grown into a worldwide movement; more than 130,000 people participated globally in 2016 and the event will take place in around 150 locations this year, including cities in the UK, Canada, Denmark, the UAE, Australia and South Korea.

“Hong Kong and Ireland both suffer from high rates of suicide, and it’s a topic that people often avoid talking about,” says Niall Kelly, a Hong Kong-based Irishman who is the driving force behind bringing Darkness into Light to the city. “I think it was the case in Ireland maybe 30 or 35 years ago, when people were wary or ashamed of [talking about suicide], but now with the likes of Darkness into Light, people are much more aware.”

“Hong Kong and Ireland both suffer from high rates of suicide, and it’s a topic that people often avoid talking about”

The march, which is expected to attract up to 1,000 people, begins at 5am at Sun Yat-sen Memorial Park, in the Sai Ying Pun area of Hong Kong Island, on May 6, with participants walking a 5km loop that brings them back to the starting point as the sun rises around 6am – timings that symbolize the event’s goal of bringing the subject out of the shadows and into the light. Kelly says the response so far has exceeded his expectations and that he is already planning to expand the event next year – he even talks about the possibility of developing it into a weekend-long festival with wellness, music and arts elements.

As well as raising money for Pieta House and local suicide-prevention NGO The Samaritan Befrienders Hong Kong, Kelly says he hopes the event can help lessen the stigma associated with suicide and encourage people to talk about it and seek help. “The aim is to get people aware of the crisis of suicide, and to alert people to the preventative measures and services that are available,” he adds.

Whether the event can have a meaningful effect on suicide prevention in Hong Kong – or resonate with local as opposed to expat residents – remains to be seen, but attempting to break the taboo while demonstrating the universal nature of the issue is certainly a step in the right direction. “The truth hurts,” as Mark Twain once wrote, “but silence kills.”

The first Darkness Into Light march in Hong Kong will take place on May 6. Sign up here.

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