Singapore

Coping with living

Every day, about five people here try to kill themselves. Some eventually succeed. Some individuals who have lost their loved ones to suicide share their stories

To lose a loved one to suicide is heartbreaking.

And just as Jeannie (not her real name) thought she was slowly healing from the loss of her brother, she suffered a second blow when her sister took her own life.

In 1987, Jeannie's deaf-mute brother Paul, the only son and the third of five children, ended his life on the morning of Mother's Day.

In 2013, the second of four girls, Belle, committed suicide - also around Mother's Day.

Jeannie, 57, did not join the dots till later in the day. "I thought, 'Oh gosh, it's Mother's Day weekend, just like when Paul died."

The mother of two grown-up children is a volunteer counsellor at a support group for widows, which she joined after losing her husband to cancer in 1994. Despite her painful experiences, she remains jovial and affable.

But her lively demeanour faded and her voice softened as she recalled the black marks in her life.

Growing up together in a three-room Housing Board flat, Jeannie and her four younger siblings shared a bedroom.

Paul was "happy-go-lucky" and was adored by everyone in the family, she said. "I always remember the fun we had with him, how much we loved him. We learnt sign language to communicate with him."

But Paul, a factory worker, was often unhappy as he was unable to communicate or express himself clearly to others. When he was 24 years old, he attempted suicide for the first time but a tree broke his fall and he survived.

CHANGE

Things seemed to get better after that. The family moved to a new flat and Paul considered entering priesthood in the Catholic church.

But he was troubled at work. He had been reprimanded and was not given a chance to explain himself, causing him to feel frustrated and turn violent against his supervisor. As a result, he was sent to the then Woodbridge Hospital, now named Institute of Mental Health.

A few months after the incident, Paul committed suicide. He was 26.

His death left his family members shaken. They never discussed his suicide and how it affected them, choosing to move on individually.

Belle took her own life 26 years after Paul's death. She was 54.

The private tutor was the closest to Paul and was the best at sign language in the family. But the mother-of-four suffered a mental breakdown and quit her job.

Her husband James, 51, took her to a psychiatrist and two of her sisters took turns to keep her company at daytime.

The day before Mother's Day, the family had planned to gather at Jeannie's home for a celebration dinner.

That was when James told her the tragic news.

As a trained counsellor, Jeannie helped keep her other sisters calm while thinking of a way to break the news to their parents.

REGRET

Jeannie's biggest regret is failing to carry out a suicide assessment on Belle. Jeannie had wanted to be more of a sister than a counsellor to Belle.

To this day, she chides herself. "How could I let this happen? How could I not ask the question?"

After her sister's death, Jeannie took a three-month break from counselling work and went on a spiritual retreat where she was encouraged to rest.

She spends time with her parents, both 84, regularly.

Jeannie, James and the rest of the family talk about Belle openly. In a recent family trip to Penang, they spoke fondly of Belle.

Jeannie says: "We talked about what she liked to eat and how she would have enjoyed the Penang Hokkien Mee.

"There was no sadness when we spoke about her, it was just nice to remember her. It has brought the family closer together."

How suicide affects the living

For every life lost to suicide, at least six survivors of suicide are directly impacted, reports the Samaritans of Singapore (SOS).

A survivor of suicide is someone who has lost a relative of friend to suicide - and not one who tries to commit suicide and fails.

Last year, there were 422 suicide cases here.

For survivors of suicide, death marks the beginning of their journey as they grapple with their grief.

An SOS spokesman says: "People forget that when a person dies, others are affected and need help.

"Be it in five or 10 years' time, the family may struggle in coping. People process grief differently and it hits everyone at different paces."

Grief is just one of the emotions affecting survivors.

Out of the 25 survivors interviewed, many spoke of struggling with guilt and anger towards the deceased, the sudden change in family dynamics and the stigma associated with suicide.

Mr Lee, 25, who declines to use his full name, has not stopped blaming himself.

Stressed by examinations in May last year, the Singapore Institute of Management student ignored his mother's scoldings and walked out of the flat when she threatened suicide one morning.

Half an hour later, he found her dead at the foot of their HDB block.

"She died because of me," he says.

Resentment, anger and shame are common reactions.

Survivors are also left saddled with practical matters like income loss, debt and increased responsibility - all of which can hamper the healing process.

GRIEF

Most dangerous of all is repressed grief, which can result in survivors wanting to hurt themselves.

A counsellor in her 50s, who wants to be known only as Madam Deng, contemplated following suit after her husband committed suicide more than 10 years ago. "I thought of joining him because I felt there was no meaning to life after he left me."

Dr Alex Su, a senior consultant psychiatrist from Institute of Mental Health (IMH), remembers a patient who went into depression after her daughter's suicide while the rest of the family got on with their lives.

This shows how everyone heals at a different pace, says Dr Su, who is also head of IMH's department of emergency medicine.

He adds that the woman is still on anti-depressants and psychotherapy after two years.

Other than SOS, organisations like Brahm Centre and Over The Rainbow have introduced programmes that encourage mental wellness and resilience, a major step in aiding suicide prevention and postvention.

Over The Rainbow founder Chow Yen-Lu, 57, started the organisation focusing on youth mental wellness in 2012, after his 26-year-old son Lawrance took his own life three years earlier.

Since he went public with the story, many parents have come forward to tell him their own stories of loss.

"There's still a big stigma towards suicide. It's a shame," he says.

"But we're in a position to make a change. We're coming out and talking about this, offering help and resources because we can relate to what they are going through."

Many factors can lead to suicide

Every day, about five people here try to kill themselves and at least one completes it.

According to the Singapore Police Force, the number of attempted suicides increased from 1,009 in 2011 to 1,090 in 2012.

Similarly, a global study by The Lancet Medical Journal in 2013 found that suicide ranks as one of the top causes of death here among those aged 15 to 49.

Jumping from height is the most common method, accounting for 70 per cent of suicides.

Reasons for suicide can be anything: stress from studies, financial difficulties, relationship problems and mental or chronic health issues. The feeling of overwhelming hopelessness can drive one over the edge.

Counsellor Angie Chew says there are often many factors that lead to suicide.

"It's never just one reason, although there may be one reason that tips the whole balance," says the founder of wellness charity organisation Brahm Centre.


Helplines

  • Samaritans of S’pore (24 hours):

1800-221-4444

  • S’pore association For Mental health:

1800-283-7019

  • Care Corner Counselling centre (Mandarin):

1800-353-5800

  • Touch Counselling & Social Support:

6709-8400

Helplines

Samaritans of S'pore (24 hours):

1800-221-4444

S'pore Association For Mental Health:

1800-283-7019

Care Corner Counselling centre (Mandarin):

1800-353-5800

Touch Counselling & Social Support:

6709-8400