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September 2019

Opening Address by SOS Patron, Mr Lawrence Wong, at Unifying Communities; Strengthening Hope Conference

I am very happy to join you today at Samaritans of Singapore’s (SOS) 50th Anniversary Conference. Let me also start by welcoming all our friends from overseas who are here today.

SOS was set up in 1969 as a hotline service in an office at the YWCA Centre. In its first year of operations, SOS already received close to 2,000 calls. Over the years, it has continued to expand its capabilities and to reach out to many more individuals in distress. Today, it maintains a 24-hour hotline, and it engages individuals through email befriending, counselling, as well as crisis and outreach support. All this work is possible only because of the efforts of the dedicated volunteers and staff of SOS. 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the SOS team works tirelessly to lend a listening ear to everyone in distress and to provide emotional support for individuals who are on the brink of suicide. As we mark this 50th anniversary of SOS, I would like to put on record our thanks to the contributions of all our SOS staff and volunteers. Thank you to the SOS team, because all of you are truly Samaritans of Singapore, and we owe you a big debt of gratitude for the lives that you have saved.

Suicide is indeed a very real and serious global health problem. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has highlighted that close to 800,000 people around the world die due to suicide every year, and the numbers are continuing to rise. Suicide itself is a complex phenomenon and many factors are involved – it could be human experiences of isolation, loss and unmet expectations, even perhaps substance use disorders; a whole range of issues could lead to one taking one’s life. What is worrying is that we are seeing increasing rates of depression and suicides amongst young people – this is happening worldwide; suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-29 year olds globally. It is not clear why suicide rates are rising, especially amongst the young people. Some have attributed this partly to social media usage. I noticed that Facebook happens to be a sponsor of this event – if indeed social media is partly to blame, then I am glad that the social media companies are stepping forward and taking responsibility, acknowledging that their platform can be used in ways that are harmful, and wanting to do something to improve these platforms. But the fact is that various studies have shown the linkage.

There is an American study that found teens who spend more time on electronic devices are more likely to be at risk of depression and suicide. Why is this so? Perhaps it is due to cyber-bullying on social media platforms, perhaps it is because social media plays a part in shaping their sense of self-worth, and it drives a certain fear of missing out – there is even an acronym for it, FOMO, and the fear of being left out; it amplifies negative emotions of insecurity and inferiority. And in the absence of an adequate support system, the dangers that depression or suicidal thoughts go unchecked increases. There could be various reasons; but many academic studies have found that there is indeed a generational shift, we talk often about the millennial generation, but there is a post-millennial generation, particularly those born after 1995, literally, they would have grown up with a smartphone, the internet, and with an Instagram account, from a very young age. There is a shift in their attitudes and mindsets for this new generation.

The death of an individual by suicide of course also greatly affects the people around them – the family members, friends, colleagues and the community. People who have lost someone they care about deeply may struggle to understand why it happened, and may themselves be at increased risk of suicidal thoughts. Without help and support, it becomes a vicious cycle.

These are global trends, but we are not immune to them in Singapore too. There were close to 400 reported suicides last year. While we have not seen a rising trend of suicides so far in Singapore, we are fortunate not to, I understand that SOS has actually received more calls and emails from people seeking emotional support. When you speak to youths in Singapore, and some of you are involved in this sector – be it in the schools or institutions of higher learning, I am sure you know that mental health and well-being is often something comes up as a topic of concern amongst young people.

Suicide is not something that we can take lightly, and I am glad that global efforts are being stepped up around the world, to raise awareness and to do more to prevent suicides. Just recently, World Suicide Prevention Day was observed on 10 September to raise awareness of the scale of suicide around the world. In Singapore, SOS too ran a campaign focusing on young people. Next month, WHO will be putting the spotlight on suicide prevention for this year’s World Mental Health Day. But even as these efforts help to bring the focus on doing more to prevent suicides, supporting individuals in distress has to go beyond a specific day, week or month. It has to be mindset that we should adopt as a society to support others in need.

All of us can and must continue to do more to prevent suicides. Although the suicide prevention field is still fairly young, there is a growing body of research which indicates there is reason for hope – that suicide can indeed be prevented on a general population basis.

In Singapore, the Government has launched the Community Mental Health Masterplan, a multi-pronged strategy to increase outreach, early detection and provide greater care and support to those with mental health conditions. For example, we have introduced initiatives to increase touchpoints for individuals to seek help and to strengthen peer support efforts within our schools. Government agencies are looking into better understanding factors that lead our youth to engage in acts of self-harm and suicide. Organisations like SOS also play an important role to provide support to individuals in distress and to prevent suicide. These are ongoing efforts and we will be doing more.

But the problem of suicide cannot be confronted by just the Government or even a few agencies like SOS alone. To effectively prevent suicides, our whole community must be involved, and every person, as a part of that community, must take responsibility. As individuals, we must be there to care and support our loved ones and each other. We must tell those in pain that it is okay to talk about their pain. As families, we must create open, safe and nurturing environments and teach our children how to cope with anxiety and depression. As communities, whether at school, at work or in our neighbourhoods, we must keep an eye out for potential signs of suicide – signs like people talking about wanting to kill themselves or of a sense of purposelessness, or people planning for suicide by tidying up their affairs or giving away their prized possessions. We all must come together to stop suicides.

Beyond looking at initiatives to provide greater access to help and improve our mental health, there is also a need to change public perception on suicides. Mental health issues and suicide are still considered a taboo in many societies – we do not openly discuss this, and in fact, there are many people who still find it uncomfortable to talk about this. The fear of social rejection, ridicule, discrimination, judgement, often keep people from sharing their struggles. This makes it worse because studies have shown that this stigma is one of the biggest barriers to suicide prevention.

We must work to change these mindsets. Again, it goes beyond Government can do; it also requires strong support and ground-up initiatives to change societal mindsets. In this regard, SOS has played an important role to raise the awareness of suicides in Singapore and emphasise the need to start more conversations on this important matter. Talking about suicide will increase our awareness as a community, and it is a very crucial first step in preventing suicides. By sharing more, we will also learn more – we can learn to recognise the warning signs of someone experiencing suicidal thoughts, and the actions and the support we can offer to individuals who are at-risk.

Many of you here today already do this in the course of your work. I encourage you to continue to have these conversations even beyond your work environments – to engage your relatives, friends and family members. It is only by changing mindsets and dispelling the negative perception of mental illness suicide that we will be able to foster a safer environment to encourage those in despair to reach out for support. By nurturing an inclusive community where people do not feel inadequate or alone, and letting them know that they are valued, we can hopefully change the trend of suicides and reduce the incidents of suicide.

Suicide prevention has to be a national effort. We can do this by working together, developing strong support networks across public, private and people sectors, and leveraging on our own distinctive strengths and resources. That’s why I am very glad to see that we have participants here from across a broad range of organisations and disciplines. By coming together, we can all take a step forward in strengthening our networks, resources and making an impact.

In conclusion, I applaud the important work that SOS and all of you do in suicide prevention. I am confident that when we all come together, we can make a difference and reverse the trend of suicide around the world and in Singapore. On that note, I wish all of you a fruitful and successful conference, and a wonderful learning experience today. Thank you very much.

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