SINGAPORE — Almost two years after her eldest son Evan, aged just 11, took his life, Doreen Kho is “constantly worried” for her three other children.
“My daughter didn’t just lose a sibling, she lost her best friend,” said the 45-year-old businesswoman, tearing up as she spoke. “I have learned to focus on their mental and emotional well-being. I cope through logic: I tell myself that I have to live for the children.”
Evan, said Kho, was a “happy child” until he began to struggle with life changes, such as the family moving back to Singapore from Melbourne in 2016. He became extremely sensitive to the words of others, and later showed signs of Asperger’s syndrome and depression. “He teared up easily. He kept apologising for everything, even though it was not his fault,” recalled Kho.
Then on 10 November 2017, Evan stepped off the 16th floor of a condominium. His body was discovered by his sister.
“Suicide just passes the pain from one person to all the people around you who love you,” said Kho.
Now, Kho is among 14 bereaved mothers who have banded together to raise awareness of mental health issues and to combat suicide, especially among the young, via an advocacy group.
The Please Stay Movement’s mission statement: “Hold on to hope. No one should be lost to suicide. Your life is precious. Reach out for help.”
Please Stay, which comes under the umbrella of Child Bereavement Support Singapore (CBSS), is also calling for a comprehensive national strategy on mental wellness and suicide prevention. Its community partners include the Institute of Mental Health, and it has also had discussions with the Ministry of Education.
Official statistics from Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) show that in 2018, there were 397 reported suicides in Singapore, a 10 per cent increase from the year before. Among them were 94 youths; suicide remains the leading cause of death for those aged 10 to 29.
In particular, said SOS, male teenage suicide peaked at its highest since 1991, with 19 deaths in 2018 - a 170 per cent increase from seven deaths in 2017.
CBSS, a peer support group, has also seen a sharp rise in the number of parents bereaved by suicide: from two families prior to 2013 to 23 families in the past six years.
In addition, a survey by international research agency YouGov showed that a third of Singaporeans have experienced suicidal thoughts, and a third of young adults here have engaged in self-harm.
‘I just want to end the pain’
At the official launch of Please Stay on Tuesday (29 October), reporters were shown a 10-minute video entitled “PleaseStay. Mothers talk about suicide”, which was launched on the same day.
Alongside Kho, retiree Jenny Teo, 59; housewife Tan Lay Ping, 46; and Elaine Lek, 55, the head of a global brand team at a tableware firm, also shared their experiences of losing a child to suicide, in an often emotional event. Kho, Teo and Lek were all featured in the video.
Two of the mothers plan to share their stories in public events from November to December.
A common thread among the mothers: a nagging sense of guilt that they had not done enough for their children, who all struggled with mental health issues.
Tan fondly recalled her 18-year-old daughter Elisabeth as “the sunshine of our family”, who was remembered by friends as kind and caring, and someone who loved animals and dreamed of becoming a veterinarian.
Diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia at a young age, Elisabeth was later diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a chronic condition characterised primarily by symptoms of schizophrenia and a mood disorder.
As Elisabeth began to self-harm, there were many late night trips to the hospital, even as her family did not quite know how to help her.
“As parents, we failed to prevent her from ending her own life,” said Tan. “Young people need more support to better their mental health. We must never stop giving them hope.”
Teo recalled that her only child Josh Isaac, 20, seemed fine shortly after his girlfriend of three years had broken up with him. “(While at a family gathering), he looked good, he looked happy...(he was) mingling with his cousins.”
Shortly after, he attempted suicide. As he was an introvert, it was hard to tell what was on his mind. “We have to ourselves take the first step,” said Teo, who urged parents to do research so that they could be better informed on mental health matters.
“He left us exactly one month before his 18th birthday,” said Lek of her son Zen Dylan, 17, who was well-liked by his peers and had a “goofy sense of humour”. He died while at university in Melbourne last October, and his organs were eventually donated to six recipients.
Asked what were some of the warning signs to look out for in young people who might be in distress, Lek said, “Very often, even though youths don’t ask for help, they want help.”
“Don’t try to psychoanalyse, just acknowledge their pain.”
If you have thoughts of suicide or are feeling distressed, you can call the Samaritans of Singapore 24-hour hotline at 1800 221 4444. You can also email firstname.lastname@example.org.