Befrienders Penang chairman Phillip Saw believes that pressure from parents and teachers to excel academically is behind the increase in suicide cases among young people.

“One student I spoke to was very upset that he scored eight A1s and one A2,” said Saw. “There was also a boy whose grandfather told him that if he did not get into what is supposedly Penang’s top school, he was ‘useless’ – imagine the pressure!”

He says for every life lost through suicide, more than 20 others have attempted to do so, and there are many more unconfirmed cases due to the stigma against suicide.

But suicidal tendencies aren’t permanent, Saw assures.

“Such feelings are temporary during which a person either moves beyond it, gets help or dies. It’s a myth to say that people who talk about killing themselves are bluffing or are attention seekers because in many cases, if such verbal indications were taken seriously, many lives would have been saved,” he says.

He says depression screening, which is conducted as part of the Know the SIGN programme, can provide an important insight into the mental and emotional state of a teenager.

Questions asked include “in the last seven days, how many days did you not have appetite to eat?” or “do you see yourself as useless?”

“If the teen has a ‘high score’, we will try to find out what’s troubling him or her. Often, talking itself is effective therapy – it helps tremendously when they have an outlet to release their frustrations.

“It’s a vicious circle. Troubled teens sometimes behave badly so people stay away from them and in the end, they have no one to turn to. They cannot think objectively because their problems become the centre of their universe,” he says, adding that while depression might be the main cause of suicide, it is in fact very much treatable.

Saw describes Befrienders as first-aiders who “keep someone alive” until they can see a doctor.

“Metaphorically speaking, someone whose heart has been broken wants to end the suffering because the hurt is too much to bear but just like a cut on your finger, the pain is very real but it will stop hurting eventually. Befrienders buys time for the healing to take place.

“Even if we cannot change the situation you are in, we can help you weigh the pros and cons of the different solutions available. We care and are willing to listen,” he says.

Saw notices that emails are gaining popularity as people want to talk but are worried about confidentiality.

“Those who call are worried that their voices can be identified but rest assured, nothing is repeated,” he says.

As with other non-governmental organisations (NGO), Befrienders operate work with limited resources.

He says it’s frustrating but Befrienders Penang simply does not have the manpower to conduct programmes in schools.

“Although we have 70-odd volunteers, we don’t have a single paid staff on board so there’s no way we can run a programme like Know the SIGN without Intel.

“We’ve had corporations donate to the organisation but this is the first time there’s an actual collaboration where they invite us to work together. It’s very heartwarming to see that the employees sacrificing their time and not just giving us money.

“Hopefully more corporations can come forward and work with us,” he says.

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