Two months ago, it was reported that suicide rates were on the rise in Malaysia. Now that statistic might not seem particularly relevant or alarming to most young people, maybe this one will – according to Dr Florance Sinniah, suicide is the second leading cause of death among Malaysians aged 12 to 25.

Those were the kind of statistics that so alarmed Florance, a strategic programme manager at Intel Technology, that she went from a Befrienders volunteer to an active campaigner in the space of a few months, setting up the “Know the SIGN” teen suicide prevention programme to help troubled students in Penang and Kedah.

SIGN is an acronym for “Self-harm Inflicted in Grief and Neglect”. Volunteers with the programme go to schools where they do depression screenings, sharing sessions (where the volunteers relate their own struggles in the past), talks, ice-breakers and Q&A sessions.

“No one is singled out when we conduct our sessions in schools,” said Florance. “Those we feel may need some counselling, we will discreetly arrange to speak to them later, refer them to Befrienders or just leave our contacts for when they are ready to talk.”

She says students really open up when the volunteers share their personal stories.

“We don’t just do PowerPoint presentations. The experiences are very real so it is engaging for the students. Usually, when our volunteers speak, they are glued in.

“What’s important is that the students feel like we are genuine in wanting to be their friend when we tell our stories of having overcome depression,” she says.
The message, Dr Florance says, is: “We’ve been there and survived depression and look how far we’ve come now. You can overcome this too.”

She adds that the programme is important not just for those who troubled or suicidal, as students should be equipped with the knowledge of what to do in case they face problems later on in life, or in case they have friends who need help.

Personal mission
After her experience volunteering with the Befrienders, Florance took it upon herself to start Know the SIGN, getting funding from her employers, Intel. The company gave her a USD5,000 (about RM15,412) grant under its Intel Involved Matching Seed Grants Program (IIMSGP).

“As a Befrienders volunteer, I saw a need to reach out to students to create awareness and prevent suicides among troubled teens – schools offered the ideal platform to do so.

“It’s truly troubling when you read that kids are posting about suicidal thoughts on Facebook,” she says.

Partnering with Befrienders Penang, some 50 Intel employees have volunteered their time to coordinate and assist in the nine-month campaign, which received approval from the State Education Department to carry out the programme in 16 schools and colleges in Penang and Kedah.

The project’s goal is to create awareness on teenage suicide, by sharing warning signs of suicide and preventing such unnecessary deaths through a network of support systems available for confidential counselling.

“Suicide is preventable. What’s important is having a healthy family environment so that teenagers have a sounding board whenever they face problems.

“For teens who don’t have that at home, we want them to know that there are non-governmental organisations like Befrienders that care and are willing to listen without judging,” she says.

Florance says the schools have been very receptive of the programme. Some schools have reported improvements in the students’ academic performance thanks to the programme.

Florance explains that suicide is a complicated behaviour that is not caused by any single event such as a bad grade, argument with parents or even the break-up of a relationship.

“In most cases, the underlying cause for suicide is a mental disorder like depression or substance abuse. It’s completely untrue that talking about suicide with someone puts the idea into their heads,” she says.

Pressures from studying, socio-economic problems and bullying are the main issues that cause depression among teenagers, Florance observes.

“Those from single parent families especially, find it harder to cope when faced with such problems because they feel like no one understands them.

“Depression and suicidal tendencies aren’t necessarily a problem faced by lower income families – even children of doctors and professionals go through it. Bright, highly-educated teens also think of suicide.”

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