Back to Forum

Student Suicide, Empathy, and Life Education

Children are often considered as the future of society. It is often said that childhood is usually the happiest time in life as they do not have so many worries as adults. How to nurture them to be all-round and holistic people and lead a happy life are always important missions of parents and teachers.

In our faith tradition, children occupy an important place in Jesus’ heart. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” (Mk 10:16) He also said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 18:3) Children’s purity, innocence, and simplicity make them exemplar of the faithful.

However, in reality, sometimes children may not be so much treasured by adults as expected. Many of them have to shoulder the kind of pressure that is unbearable at their age.  Recently, a Hong Kong film “Time still turns the pages” (or “Diary of a Youth”, as translated literally from the Chinese name of the film), reflects the social issues of students committing suicide and bullying of young students in schools. The director Nick Cheuk, inspired by his personal experience of a close college friend committing suicide, produced this film. He has already received a number of the Best New Director Award in Hong Kong and Asian film award ceremonies. This film has drawn much attention in Hong Kong and Asia, and touched many people, including myself. It made me think about the human dignity of children, ethical choices of various parties, and how to show more compassion and empathy to others.

“Time still turns the pages” is a story about the tragedy of Kit, a ten-year-old boy who grew up in a middle-class family and committed suicide by jumping off a building. Kit has mediocre grades and is not as talented as his younger brother. He often suffers criticism from his mother, indifference from his younger brother, and is even scolded by and beaten up by his father who overemphasizes academic result and talents. His parents never asked him about his preferences and needs. Rather, they compare Kit with his brother and criticize Kit as not smart and capable as his brother. Kit also firmly believed that he should strive to become as good as his younger brother. When he learned that writing a diary may improve one’s writing skill and academic result, which in turn could make his parents happy, he started writing diary, treating the diary as his only friend. This disclosed how lonely he was! However, hard work does not necessarily bring rewards. After experiencing repeated setbacks, including his beloved comic book author suddenly passed away, the piano teacher who cared about him was fired by his parents as Kit did not progress well, he was deeply troubled by insomnia with various kinds of pressure. As a result, his grades became even worse.

Kit tried his best to improve but failed. In return, he was blamed by his parents, ridiculed by his teachers, ostracized by his classmates, and his mother even blamed Kit’s fault for her marriage problem. He wanted to seek help from a psychiatrist, but his mother declined his request, saying only crazy people see the psychiatrist. He wanted to talk to his younger brother, but his brother refused, saying he was tired and wanted to sleep. It seems no one looked at him, listened to him, or cared about him. In the end, feeling depressed and disheartened, he chose to leave this world. After the incident, Kit’s mother left the family, and both his father and younger brother Chun felt guilty and regretful. Chun did not follow the order of his father anymore and had a strange relationship with his father.

The other half of the film focuses on the life of his younger brother Chun. Kit’s death created a great impact on Chun’s study, choice of work, and marriage life. Knowing Kit would like to be a teacher after growing up, Chun fulfilled his elder brother’s wish and became a teacher. Chun also faces a crisis in his class as one of his students wrote an anonymous letter, stating he/she would like to commit suicide. This made Chun dig out the old diary of his brother, trying to understand his brother as well as his own inner pain again. From this, we can see the traumatic experiences of those who witnessed the trauma of other people, especially close relatives or friends.

The film aroused society’s attention to children’s mental health. However, the Hong Kong government did not respond enough in the past. In fact, the student suicide rate in Hong Kong has repeatedly reached new highs. In the first 11 months of last year (2023), the Education Bureau received 31 reports of suspected suicides among primary and secondary school students. The Hong Kong Jockey Club Suicide Prevention Research Center of the University of Hong Kong cited police figures as saying that as of November 8, 2023, 306 school children had committed suicide, of which 269 were rescued and 37 died, with an average age of 15.8 years old.[1] The Department of Health even found that as many as 4.1% of primary and secondary school students surveyed had thoughts of planning or attempting suicide.

Kit in the film disclose the social phenomenon that young students are unable to bear the pressure from various situations, such as oppressive and tense family relationships, an indifferent and discriminatory school environment, and a social atmosphere where achievement is paramount. All these are traceable in real life. The pressure is very real and the number is increasing and alarming. Such phenomenon occurs not only in Hong Kong, but in other Asian countries with culture of competition.

The director chose to focus on relationships in the film, no matter relationships in family or school. The social problems of student suicide and school bullying make us reflect on whether parents, teachers, peers and other people treat every human person, including children, with dignity. If we really love our students and children, we would respect them, caring about their needs and showing love to them disregard of their grades or achievement. If parents, siblings, teachers, and classmates can take an extra step, taking initiative to care about others with empathy, and truly listening with an open mind and heart instead of making judgments too quickly, students will suffer less from stress, disappointment and depression. Then the rate of suicides caused by trauma and pressure would be greatly reduced. To convey this message and nurture the virtue of empathy is imperative.

In the film, after experiencing a long period of guilt and pain, Kit’s brother Chun tried to move forward. Being a teacher, he tries his best to show empathy and compassion to his students, hoping to avoid tragedy occurring again. What impressed me most in the movie is his caring attitude towards his students, telling his students, “I may not be able to help you solve all problems, but I will be with you, accompanying you.” If everyone could treat students or children with such attitude, tragedy would be greatly reduced.

In schools, including Catholic schools, promoting life education is indispensable. If students do not truly understand life and death, do not know how to appreciate, cherish, and respect life; do not have a positive and optimistic attitude to face difficulties and changes; and do not know how to understand and deal with their own negative emotions, no matter how much help the outside world gives them, they will be useless at best. “Remedial measures” cannot cure the root cause. Therefore, it is urgent to promote life education, reform education that is only based on academic performance, and seek more comprehensive and diversified development.

Dr. John Chi-Kin Lee, director of the Center for Religious Education and Spiritual Education at the Education University of Hong Kong, called on society and teachers to pay more attention to student growth and diversified development, and hoped that “life education” could be integrated into all school subjects. For Lee, good life education in a school should achieve the following: First, it should cultivate students to have knowledge and be able to think about their relationship with the world, thereby cultivating their empathy and will, and positively affecting personal behavior, thus, forming the values ​​of respecting and cherishing life; second, to help students balance their diversified development, minimize the amount of homework, and increase extracurricular activities. Teachers should also communicate more with young people and respect their ideas. Lee understands that schools have to focus on academic performance, but he hopes that the social atmosphere will focus more on personal growth because society should establish a correct value orientation, establish a good social atmosphere, pay attention to students’ spiritual cultivation, and promote students’ comprehensive growth, encourage them to realize themselves, have the courage to face difficulties, and continue to improve their independent personality against external influences.[2]

[1] The Hong Kong Jockey Club Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention (CSRP), “Statistics of Suicide Data in Hong Kong,” https://csrp.hku.hk/statistics/

[2] T.S. Wong, “The Mental Health Safety Net is Full of Loopholes: How to Support Fallen Students,” Hong Kong 01, 12 Jan., 2024.