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When the system fails a child

afterthoughts upon reading a memoir on losing a child to suicide

[trigger warning: suicide] I read the book, Loss Adjustment in one sitting yesterday. I had wanted to read the book since I read a few excerpts in the mainstream media. The author, Linda Collins, is a copy editor at a local newspaper and the prose shows. The book is a memoir on coping with her only daughter’s suicide at age 17.

The book was sad and moving in many parts, but it was the end that broke me into a sobbing fit. There was a beautifully taken portrait of Victoria, by her photographer father. It is strange grieving for a person you don’t know but have read so much of.

I have written this probably a hundred times: it breaks my heart when young people end their own lives. When one has lived a long enough life, experienced enough and had suffered enough, my own personal view is that the person has a basic right to decide. No one else lives our lives for us. No one except fellow sufferers can understand the sort of suffering a person with mental illness and/or chronic pain lives with.

But a young person neither has the power or a wider perspective gained with life experience that is necessary to see whether breaking out of their circumstances will alleviate their suffering. Yet precisely because of their youth, their suffering is in a way more intense. Do you remember how much fear we used to feel back in the days when it was time to receive our academic results? That fear is disproportionate only upon hindsight, because we lived long enough to know those results themselves (the trauma from other people’s disappointment and disdain is altogether another matter though) didn’t matter that much, other options for living opened up, and there are opportunities to correct or change a course.

However, as a kid – I very much blame the system for this – you are told that nothing else matters more than your results, your life would be destroyed if you didn’t do well enough, and a little more subtly, popularity, power and accomplishments are needed to survive in this society. Kids with relatively healthy psyches struggle to cope in our system, much less kids with disorders. For a young person, it can feel like there is just no hope – I mean school is supposed to be the best, most carefree and innocent time of your life (narrator: it is not), and it already sucks so much, what sort of hope do you have for the rest of your life?

It feels so powerless, so oppressive, so stuck. You are afraid of being an endless disappointment to everyone who cares about you and you feel crushed every time someone makes you the subject of their disdain – because you are not wealthy enough, not pretty enough, not skinny enough, not smart enough, not sociable enough, not brave enough.

I had no idea that her opinion of herself hinged so much on what others, her peers, thought. That our parental love was not enough. That I should have bared my fangs like a lioness and swept her up in my arms from a ruthless, Darwinian world that wants to destroy such beauty, such kindness. Instead, I just thought, “My lovely daughter. You are a much better person inside and out, than I am. I’ve made something better, with you. Welcome to the world, Victoria. It’s going to love you.” La-la land, I was in.

People don’t realise other kids can be cruel, other parents can be cruel, even teachers can be cruel. Like the author, I am mortified but not surprised to read that the school counsellor was inept, that she knew Victoria was suicidal but did nothing about it, that she probably dismissed her self-harm behaviour as being dramatic and typical teenager behaviour.

It hits us. We are in the presence of corporate functionaries. In Mrs C we see a fearful, defensive person. Her answers seem rehearsed. I hope in my heart that Mrs C is a caring person, but her responses are devoid of empathy. She only seems to be thinking about her employer, and her obligations there. Our poor dear daughter had put her worries, her mental health, her life, in the hands of people who could not help her…Mrs C launches then into what seems a sales spiel: “I am proud to be an employee of education provider X, one of the biggest education providers in the world.” She actually says this. She goes on about how the multinational organisation that owns the school follows the “most thorough” protocols for the welfare of its clients—(clients!)—how it has rules laid down and a reputation…

When young people are depressed and suicidal – I cannot articulate this well or enough – the intensity of this suffering is searing, because these feelings are all they feel, the circumstances are perceived to be permanent and fixed, their youth makes them unable to contemplate otherwise. They are at an age where they desperately need to be loved, nurtured, and seen. Depressed adults suffer from this too, but unlike kids we can quit a job, divorce our spouse, leave a country, possibly quit our entire life and create a new one, stay in bed until we get better. We can get treated, interview a therapist until we find the right one, if we are lucky we may have the money and the healthcare system to try a variety of medication.

Kids have no such power. They are stuck with possibly callous school counsellors *if* they seek help, possibly unempathetic private or public counsellors if they are lucky enough to get external help, they are unable to quit school or pick one that is more suited for them. I don’t know how many people realise this, but kids don’t get a break. They get scheduled school vacations, but they can’t just take a few months off whenever they need to recover. I don’t know how many stories I’ve read about kids plucking up the courage to ask their parents for help and they get laughed at in return. Depressed?? People in other places are starving!

In this case, Victoria didn’t ask her parents for help (she did see the school counsellor). She seemed to have a good relationship with her parents, but was probably afraid to be a burden to them. I can’t help but wonder what sort of chances do kids with tiger parents have if a kid with loving parents couldn’t survive?

“I want to commit suicide so bad. All the reasons are stupid and I have no dire reasons to kill myself like other people, like crippling debts, or no family, or physical disabilities. I feel really dumb and ashamed because I’m overreacting and I don’t want to tell anyone because it’s obvious they’ll think I’m being stupid and I can work through and deal with my personal problems. I’ve started cutting my wrists and thighs with scissors and scraping skin with my nails. I already have 20 scars…” This is deeply disturbing to read. I tremble in anguish at such tremendous heartbreak within my own daughter. To realise that your own flesh and blood suffered this way and had such dark thoughts is almost unbearable. Malcolm and I are beyond words. But not beyond recrimination. How could we have been so blind to this? Why did Victoria not tell us? She must have wanted to, so many times. We would only have wanted to help her. We could have saved her. How do you live with yourself, with this knowledge that you did see her pain and did not save her?

The author shared fragments of entries from her daughter’s journal, and also poems. It made me really upset to know that Victoria had so much potential to be a great writer and/or poet had she lived on, had the world she lived in had been more hospitable.

We often blame the medical condition when there is a suicide. The person was depressed or had a mental illness. I do think in some cases, having a mental illness makes it difficult for a person to live. But in many other cases, the world is not very hospitable for people who suffer from mental conditions who want to survive. There is a social stigma, and an economic discrimination (no medical insurance here will cover you if you have a mental illness diagnosis). There is no systemic support: if you can’t work and you don’t have financial means to survive, the idea of suicide becomes tempting because all you face is a lifetime of suffering, possible debt and the loss of dignity because of the dependence on the social welfare system (if it actually exists) or your loved ones.

For me, this raises philosophical and ethical questions. What is the meaning of life? Who do we want to be as human beings? How do we treat our kids and our people? If someone can create great art or poetry, but cannot pass the standard examinations, are they worthy of life, community and love? If someone is ill and cannot work in a regular job, should they get help from the system? We ask of people to survive for love, for life, for us, but what is the quality of life are they going to get? What sort of fucked up world are we creating if kids are compelled to end their young lives because they are afraid of examinations, tired of being ridiculed or looked down upon, not being heterosexual, or worse, all of the above?


I am not afraid to admit, I think of dying all the time. I live with chronic depression and chronic pain, and it gets really exhausting to keep trying to cope. But here is what I think makes the difference and I wish to make this point again and again: I think I have the power to decide. This ironically keeps me alive. Meanwhile, I can keep on trying to change my environment and myself. I have learned to be somewhat amused with my situation and also to take life and other people a lot less seriously. Life has taught me that the asian thing of saving face (reputation) is really a pointless waste of time, and most people are not in a position themselves to tell other people how to live or what to do. I have learned that life is a lot larger than school, work, and what people think. But you have to gain the power to live it and discover that you can actually try to live life on your own terms.

Kids (and sadly, underprivileged people). Do not have the power to change their circumstances. This is what that makes suicide a very attractive option, because they believe it is literally the only event that can lift them out of their circumstances. Unfortunately for some kids, this belief is real, because they don’t even have the love and support of their family. Where are they going to go? It makes me wish that there is some socially accepted commune they can run to and live for a while, with free therapy.

Put all this together, and Victoria was remarkably highly functioning, considering it all. She held it together, for as long as she could. And then, she couldn’t….All this made her despair about the future. She saw little point in fighting to overcome who she was. She knew we loved her, but it was not enough to battle her demons and keep living…Immediate death seemed preferable to years of living.

I think what would have possibly saved Victoria and many other kids (myself included, from a lifetime of psychological trauma), is to make our society way, way, way, more inclusive (and actually fun to live in, not a slow dripping torture). Society should have a compassionate view for people who struggle with their mental health (which I will repeatedly emphasise is not really mental as perceived but neurological). We feel compassionate towards people who suffer from physical illness, we would ask them to seek treatment right away. No one would ask a cancer patient to pull up their socks and get back to work as soon as possible. No one would compare diabetes and starvation. No one would ask a child with a debilitating physical condition about passing their examinations.

If we can make going to a therapist as normalised as seeing a doctor for flu, perhaps someone like Victoria would just casually walk into the hall one day and tell her mom, “hey I’m not feeling well, can I see a therapist today?” And her mom could have just set up an appointment with no dramatic fuss or blame. Because life can be hard, the society is unequal, the system is flawed (and stupid), and mental health issues are a direct, inevitable consequence of that. Why should it be stigmatised? If we don’t emphasise so much on passing examinations, or on academic results to get dignified work, if we recognised more dimensions of skill and talent, perhaps kids wouldn’t feel like doing badly for their PSLE/O/A is the end of the world, because there’s always something new to learn, there are always schools that take in people based on other criteria. There is a ton of ways to live life apart from living it up to people’s expectations.

Choosing suicide when one is deeply suffering and has tried a million ways to survive is reasonable. Killing oneself because a human perpetuated system has failed or due to circumstantial pressure is deeply heartbreaking.

But it is a striking conclusion that fills me with immense sadness. There was the beautiful, witty, articulate person, whose brain was at war with itself, wired for self-destruction. And try as she might, there was not that much she could do about it. It required intervention, drugs, cognitive therapy and other behavioural rewiring, counselling, and possibly spells in psychiatric wards.

Linda Collins acknowledges that there might have been a difficult, lifelong battle for her daughter even if she had survived. This was particularly significant for me, because she acknowledges the sheer difficulty of it all, whereas people tend to dismiss mental conditions and suicidal tendencies as transitionary. The current system makes it harder than it already is, and I question how much of this suffering we can reduce, how much weight we can remove for a disordered brain, if our society had been kinder and wiser. Yes there is only so much we can do for a brain at war with itself, but at the very least, we shouldn’t feel discriminated for it. It shouldn’t be something we have to hide and be ashamed of, and I wonder how much of this hiding and shame makes someone feel like living is untenable.

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