Mild chatter and the whirring of coffee machines fill the relatively empty cafe on a sweltering Friday afternoon. Swee looks into the distance, her eyes glazing over as she recalls a haunting memory. The usually jovial owner of 7Kickstart is solemn.
If you are a regular patron of 7Kickstart Cafe in SMU like this caffeine-dependent author, perhaps you have noticed something different about your drink recently. The unassuming, brown coffee sleeve has been replaced with a jet black one, and attached to the corrugated cardboard is a band-aid bearing an important message - HOW R U?
This past Saturday, the 10th of September, marked World Suicide Prevention Day. The issue of suicide is a dark topic, one that no one talks about, but everyone is acutely aware of. In 2015, 409 people in our community ended their lives through suicide. It is a large number for a population as small as ours, but it is more chilling to consider that this number accounts for roughly 1 - 2 deaths a day. This is not forgetting that for every suicide death, 10 - 15 others might have attempted it. Extrapolating further, this number also does not account for the numerous others who contemplate suicide during their waking moments.
Swee herself has had a personal brush with this dark issue. Two of her loved ones lost their battle to depression, and also ended their lives through suicide. She recounts the horrific scene of the discovery, and her ensuing emotions. In the aftermath, there was helplessness, loss, and the irrevocable echo of “Could I have done more?”.
The impact of her experiences made suicide prevention a cause close to Swee’s heart. It was therefore a no-brainer for her to pledge her support and her cafe’s resources to aid the #HOWRU movement. #HOWRU is a campaign launched by the Samaritans of Singapore (SOS), the sole suicide-prevention non-profit organisation in Singapore. The symbolic bandaid bearing the slogan represents the deep but unseen wounds that many victims suffer from.
#HOWRU’s aim is simple. It is an effort to raise public awareness regarding suicide prevention. It advocates for a unified, community-centred approach to help at-risk individuals. Looking out for each other involves taking the initiative to start the conversation. When people tackle the issue head-on, the stigma associated with this dark, under-bellied monster diminishes.
Swee believes that the stigma against suicide is not the only problem; Ignorance is an equally worrying stumbling block. Sufferers are less likely to voice out their need for help for fear of the incredible amount of shame and fear that they might face. The idea of declaring 'yes, I need help' is often daunting for many. She contends that many victims must have had loved ones who were intuitively aware that there was “something off” - but ignorance usually blinds one into complacency.
Depression and suicidal thoughts don't manifest physically: instead, Invisible, they fester deep within the recesses of victims' minds, and torment them into overwhelming terror. Meanwhile, the outside world carries on obliviously.
“When you suffer from a cold or when you break a leg, you go to a doctor to seek help,” says Swee. “Depression and suicidal thoughts are simply illnesses of the mind, they should be treated in the exact same way.”
Swee hopes that this meaningful campaign can reach more people, and touches an even greater number of hearts. To her, distributing coasters and changing her coffee cup sleeves are small gestures, but they are but small acts done in great love. Even if one individual opens up and seeks help due to her efforts, Swee believes that the temporal change would be worth it. She notes that depression and suicidal thoughts are not uncommon illnesses. Given Singapore's extremely stressful and fast-paced environment, the propensity for one to suffer and not be provided with the requisite help is very high. She believes that if more people "took the initiative to provide a listening ear and a heart of compassion, we would be able to alleviate the suffering of many individuals."
7Kickstart owner Swee with the writer and her friends
“Take the time, stop and ask, ‘Hey how are you? Do you need help?’ Often in their most quiet and vulnerable moments, people will open up if you listen to them.”
I left 7Kickstart’s doors that day deep in thought. The short session with Swee was bittersweet, just like the steaming beverage in my hands. Even though our conversation circled a dark topic, I could not help but walk away hopeful and optimistic. I realize hope and suicidal thoughts are on opposite ends of the spectrum, but this does not mean that there can never be hope. Hope can spring from a place where voices of sufferers are being heard, and where individuals like Swee are taking the initiative to extend a hand of compassion. All great things start with small beginnings, and #HOWRU is no exception. #HOWRU is set to be the start of a bigger and more promising tomorrow if we all participate in this otherwise taboo conversation.
To learn more about #HOWRU, visit https://sos.org.sg/