Must we wait until suicide happens?

I shared a story on Instagram about a 14-year-old girl in China who wrote her parents a suicide note, pleading for them to take better care of her younger brother, now that she was gone.

Many other people who read it responded with “it’s so sad,” or “no parent should ever have to go through that”.

But one particular acquaintance responded with this question, “how do we know this is a real letter though? Seems fake to me.” Let’s call this acquaintance of mine Adam.

I replied, “and what if it is? The ultimate purpose of this post is to help parents realize that their children may be dealing with mental health issues. It is to bring awareness to society that mental health is not to be taken lightly.”

“Yeah but it’s normal to be stressed. We have been living in competitive environments since forever. If people don’t want their children to be pressured, they can leave and go somewhere else,” Adam said.

I was shocked by his response but instead of reacting and starting an argument with him, I simply asked, “how did you feel growing up in a competitive environment?”

With one question, it opened the floodgates. He started to share.

He shared with me that when he was in primary school, his parents constantly compared him to his cousins, his neighbours, and even their colleagues’ children. He was already in the top 10% of his cohort but it wasn’t enough for his parents, both of whom were scholars.

On top of doing well in school, they made him pick up a third language from the age of 12 and also sent him to piano lessons every week. From the age of 9, he had extra tuition classes almost every day, all the way until he graduated from National Junior College.

After graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering from National University of Singapore (NUS), he went on to work in a private company and is now a manager, overseeing a group of twenty other people.

At 33 years old, he now has a family of his own – a son who is 3 years old and a daughter who is 8 months old.

On paper, his life seems perfect. His parents have raised him up to be the perfect son they always wanted. Can anyone say that his parents did him wrong by putting pressure on him to perform and succeed? Can Adam ever find fault in Singapore’s highly competitive education system when he himself excelled and flourished in it?

What we don’t know is that Adam doesn’t speak with his parents anymore. After getting married, he fell out with them because his parents wanted their grandchildren to attend all the same schools that he went to. They wanted to control their grandchildren’s upbringing the same way they controlled Adam’s childhood.

“Did you ever tell your parents how you were feeling?” I ask him. By now, he has calmed down and apologized for what he said earlier on. He agrees that he was reacting badly to a trigger of his and didn’t really mean to ostracize families who don’t happen to accept the status quo in Singapore.

“No. As a boy, I was raised to hide my emotions. Whenever I cried about something, my parents would cane me and my mother would make me stand against the wall and carry 5 books above my head. I would keep crying and crying but they would tell me that boys have to be strong and to show emotions is to be weak” Adam tells me.

“I happened to do well in school and so they regularly rewarded me with gifts and holiday trips too. But my parents never cared about my emotional well-being. All they wanted was a trophy child. I have never once heard my father or mother tell me that they love me. It’s just not something my family did with me,” he continues to share.

After starting a family of his own, Adam and his wife decided to put some distance between his children and his parents. They didn’t want their children to be tainted by the same mentality and be taught the wrong things. No matter how much Adam tried to educate his parents about mental well-being, they would avoid the topic at all cost, saying that he has become too modern and that he knows nothing of raising children.

They would tell him to look at himself, to look at his siblings and cousins, most of whom have become either doctors, lawyers or accountants.

Adam recalls wanting to commit suicide many times himself. He just never did it because he was afraid that his younger siblings would follow suit and kill themselves as well. None of his siblings are close to their parents. They have all either left Singapore or left home and become estranged with their parents. Adam was the last child of theirs, willing to go back for family meals. Now, even he doesn’t want to do that anymore.

He remembers how his own schoolmate had committed suicide when he was in army. “No one knew about it; it wasn’t in the papers. He had killed himself by jumping off the 8th floor of a building.”

It’s been so many years since then, but Adam can still remember the trauma it left on him and all of his friends. His schoolmate had completed his A-levels but did too poorly to go to a local university.

“I remember thinking to myself – I’m lucky that I fit the mould in Singapore. I’m lucky that I could appease my parents and succeed on their terms. But my friend’s suicide also made me realize that many people are suffering from mental health issues and that no one wants to talk about it.”

After taking on his first job and meeting his then girlfriend, now wife, Adam found himself flailing at work. He had done very well in school but at work, he then found himself facing many challenges. He couldn’t perform as well as the other people who hadn’t even gone to local universities. They either went to private universities in Singapore or overseas to study.

He also noticed that he had a huge temper, one that always caused him to fight with his wife. It was only after she suggested he go to therapy, that Adam started facing his emotional trauma that had been piling up in him since he was a young child.

Through therapy, Adam started learning that his life had been plagued with many problems because of the stress and pressure he endured as a child. If not for therapy, he wouldn’t have been able to get past the stress he faced at work too.

After talking to Adam, I thought about mental health awareness in Singapore and realized that we need to stir up conversations amongst each other.

Although our current education system has been changing to make things less stressful for the current generation of children, many of us who grew up in the highly competitive environment have now become parents. We are now executives, managers, and CEOs of companies. We have now internalized many mindsets and we risk passing down these ingrained mentalities to our children.

As a society, we grieve together when we hear about suicide cases, especially when they are children who have decided to end their own lives. The question is – do we have to wait till suicide happens before we start talking about mental health? As a society, what else can we do to raise awareness about mental health issues and ways to cope with them?

As a founding member of the team that started Learner Net, I felt proud when our management team wholeheartedly decided to launch a series of articles that would start conversations. I want to be a part of a company that cares. I want to be a member of a society and a community that is committed to talking about difficult topics.

We all have to start from somewhere. It could start from a conversation with your child. That conversation could start with simple questions – “do you feel happy in school? How are you coping with your work? Are you experiencing any difficult emotions you cannot understand?”

Over the next few weeks, we aim to bring you some perspectives in the form of articles, all in hope of starting conversations amongst you. We care – because like you, we are also parents and teachers. Like you, we were once students ourselves and we remember what it felt like feeling the weight of the world on our shoulders.

Send us some topics regarding mental health that you’d like to learn more about. We hear you!

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about the author
Jane Tor
Jane Tor, Business Development Manager of Learner Net

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