Hong Kong schools have traditionally not paid much attention to the emotional needs of pupils. But welfare organisations are responding to the rising number of teenage suicides by launching life-skills projects in schools.
The Baptist Oi Kwan Social Service has developed "emotion and values" curriculum packages for 14 and 15-year-olds. Mary Leung Lam Tien-wei, its director, said: "We have found that even the top students in the top schools are very stressed. It is not enough to just pick high-risk groups for support."
Last year 28 students under the age of 20 took their own lives, 26 per cent more than in 1996.
The 13-week curriculum courses include three modules: self-understanding; relationships with others;and exploring the values of society. Armed with greater awareness, students would be able to help each other if they come under stress, said Ms Leung. "It should be very interactive, very experiential." She hopes to get funding for in-service training for teachers in four schools for a pilot project.
"Hong Kong teachers were ill-prepared for meeting their own emotional needs, let alone those of their students," said Ms Leung. "If they don't know how to handle their own crying how can they help their pupils?" This was partly due to traditional Chinese reticence in expressing emotions but also to the colonial education system, which invested little in the psychological needs of children. Meeting students' psychological needs should be included in teacher training, she said.
In another initiative, called SKO, the Samaritans, the KELY Support Group and Hong Kong Outward Bound School have teamed up to train students to set up peer support groups aimed at preventing teenage suicides.
The training, for students aged 17 to 19, includes a series of seminars and lectures on how to identify and respond to emotional distress, and Outward Bound training to develop leadership and coping skills. After completing the course, students return to their schools to set up their own groups. The 12 who took part in the first course in April are now reporting back to SKO on their progress.
In one school, they plan to produce a regular newsletter to let everyone in the school know about its meetings and other activities. Another school has a special room from which the peer support group can operate.
The organisers would like to see a peer support group in every school - if funding were available. SKO is targeted at Chinese schools because their pupils were more stressed than those in the English and international schools, said Mya Kirwan, director of KELY. "One of the biggest problems is their concern over academic achievement. It is very high and it is very stressful," she said.
The SKO project attempts to develop skills to cope with stress and prevent suicides.
"These will be applicable when these young people are parents, and when they are children of elderly parents," said Geraldine Wilson, deputy director of the Samaritans.