Mother Launches Groundup Initiative To Educate Public About Suicide After Son’s Death
Talking about a loved one’s passing is never easy, but the difficulty — and pain — shoots up significantly if the person took their own life.
For one Singaporean mother, however, she chose to open up about her son’s suicide again and again, in hopes that it might prevent others from experiencing the same heartbreaking loss.
In August 2020, Jenny Teo launched Stigma2Strength (Singapore), a groundup initiative that aims to educate the public about suicide prevention and tackle the still-prevalent stigma around the topic.
This was about two years after her son, Josh, died at the age of 20.
MS News sat down for a chat with Jenny recently to find out more about Stigma2Strength (Singapore), how she dealt with her son’s passing, and what gives her strength to keep doing what she does.
Son was ‘lovable’ & ‘very honest’
“Shock and disbelief.”
Those were the two words that Jenny, 63, used to describe what she felt after finding her son lying motionless on the study room sofa one June morning in 2018.
Many details about the circumstances of her son’s suicide have already been reported, so we didn’t want to spend too much time discussing them during our conversation.
According to The Straits Times (ST), Josh, who was just a few months away from his 21st birthday, had put a plastic bag over his head and tied it around his neck.
The memory is a gut-wrenching one for Jenny, but she also had plenty of fond ones to share.
“When he was growing up, he was always playing pranks and making me laugh,” she recalled, a bittersweet smile spreading across her face. “He was a lovable kid who enjoyed making videos and writing.”
Josh was also, Jenny added, “very honest”.
When he was about 15 or 16 years old, he came home one day to tell her that he had found a S$50 note on the floor in a bookstore.
Since it would be difficult to locate the true owner of the money, Jenny assumed Josh had kept it and asked him what he spent it on.
“He said he gave it back to the store manager!” she exclaimed. “I was so proud of him.”
Struggled with stigma & finding support
Sadly, Josh later fell into depression after struggling with his studies, family relationship trauma, National Service, his parents’ divorce, and his own breakup.
According to his mother, the latter was “the last straw that broke the camel’s back”.
Unable to take the pain any longer, Josh took his life on 25 June 2018.
For Jenny, losing her only child to suicide was bad enough, but having to deal with it by herself made things even worse.
“Honestly, the support I had from family and friends was minimal,” Jenny admitted.
She and her ex-husband, Josh’s father, divorced in 2014.
Fortunately, she was able to find support and kinship later with a group of mothers who had also lost children to suicide.
“For [suicide loss] survivors, finding someone to talk to who can understand is like finding a needle in a haystack,” she said.
“It’s like finding your own tribe, so to speak. And it’s only by talking to your tribe that you feel comfortable and know there’s no judgement.”
Together, they co-founded the PleaseStay Movement, which aims to raise awareness about and prevent youth suicide.
Still, Jenny faced her fair share of insensitive comments – even from those who did not have ill intentions.
She recalled one particular conversation she had with a neighbour at their condominium lift lobby.
According to Jenny, the neighbour had just read about the PleaseStay Movement and remarked: “Oh, so now you’re a celebrity again, but in a different way.”
The neighbour was referring to Jenny’s former job as a well-known radio and television personality.
“What could I do? I just smiled and walked away,” she said. “So this is an example of the stigma, where people just say things without really thinking about being sensitive to your loss.”
Groundup initiative focuses on public education
Another way Jenny coped was by diving into research to try and find answers to her son’s suicide.
Her studies led her to books by the American psychologist Edwin Shneidman, who’s regarded as the father of contemporary suicidology.
One thing he said that stood out to Jenny was that the ultimate prevention of suicide is public education, particularly about being able to spot clues that someone is on the verge of attempting suicide.
Jenny also noticed that her son’s story corroborated the scientific literature, which led her to believe that they were good tools for suicide prevention.
And thus, Stigma2Strength (Singapore) was born.
The initiative focuses on equipping parents, caregivers, teachers, and anyone who can be classified as a “first responder” with knowledge about the suicidal mindset so that they’re better prepared to handle any potential cases.
“[First responders] could be any of us – you never know if a friend might come up to you and say they’re suicidal,” she explained.
Since she’s retired, Jenny dedicates all her time to Stigma2Strength (Singapore), whether it’s giving talks – mostly in corporate, school or social space settings – or preparing for them, which alone can take months.
This is because she includes a lot of statistics (which she makes sure are as up-to-date as possible) and tries to tailor the content to her audience. There is also a lot of medical jargon to explain in terms that are easier to understand.
She does everything on a voluntary basis. Whatever goodwill monetary token she receives is channelled to other charity organisations supporting caregivers of children with suicidal ideation.
Hopes to reduce stigma surrounding suicide in Singapore
Aside from public education, the primary mission of Stigma2Strength (Singapore) is to change mindsets and foster a society with more empathy, compassion and kindness.
In addition, Jenny also hopes to reduce the stigma commonly associated with suicide so that more people aren’t afraid to seek help.
Quoting Singapore Management University (SMU)’s national study on suicide from 2022, she pointed out that eight in 10 Singaporeans still associate suicide with stigma.
“This mindset stems from myths and fallacies passed down from generation to generation, and it’s so taboo that no one comes out to talk about it,” she said.
But her talks are as open as you can get. In fact, Jenny uses her son’s story as a case study, especially since she’s able to link it back to her research material.
She even refers to the suicide notes that Josh left behind.
“[Professor Shneidman] said that suicide notes are the ‘golden road’ to the understanding of the suicidal mind,” she said.
“During my talks, I make it a point to use my son’s suicide note to show that it’s not just a note – it actually gives you a deeper understanding of what goes through the mind of a suicidal person in high-risk.”
What gives her the strength to talk about son
On 25 Apr 2023, Jenny released a book called ‘Grieving and Living. A Mother’s Hope. A Mother’s Journey’, which chronicles her experience and insights in a way that’s “even rawer” than her talks, she said.
The idea of writing a book had already been percolating in her mind since 2020, but it wasn’t until the following year that a chance encounter planted the seed that would eventually lead to its fruition.
After giving a talk at a church, Jenny was contacted by one of the attendees who asked her if she was interested in publishing a book.
“He was the owner of a printing company and said that he would do it for me for free,” she recalled.
Putting the book together was relatively easy in terms of the contents as Jenny simply referred to what she touched on in her talks.
Emotionally speaking, however, it was tough.
“There were many times where I broke down as I was writing the book and my scripts,” she said.
However, she soon realised that penning down her thoughts was a form of journaling that turned out to be very cathartic for her.
“I found myself healing and recovering very quickly as a suicide loss survivor.”
Despite having to repeatedly bare her heart and soul about such a personal traumatic event, she does not let that deter her.
She draws strength, she said, from the hope that she could potentially save a troubled person’s life.
“Keeping quiet is not the solution,” she stressed. “Mindsets need to be changed first, which is why I put so much effort into public education.”
Her ultimate hope is that one day, every Singaporean will have an adequate level of suicide literacy, which could help reduce – if not completely eradicate – the suicide rate.
As the Stigma2Strength (Singapore) slogan goes:
One life lost is one too many. One life saved is all worth it.
Part of groundup community in Singapore
Jenny is one of many individuals who have launched groundup initiatives to support causes close to their hearts.
Groundups are not-for-profit, non-registered organisations that were formed to benefit the community in various ways.
The National Volunteer And Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) recently released the first-ever national-level study of community initiatives in Singapore.
Titled the Groundup Initiative Study 2023, it provides a comprehensive overview of the groundup community through the results of focus group discussions, in-depth interviews, and surveys.
According to the study, there are around 450 known and active groundups in Singapore as of March 2023.
Launching a groundup usually starts with identifying a service gap and seeing how you can fill it.
In Jenny’s case, she started Stigma2Strength (Singapore) because she remembered struggling as a caregiver to her son when he was suffering from depression and after his first suicide attempt.
“I had nobody I could talk to,” she said. “I felt helpless as there was no one to share with me about the suicidal mindset, so I know what it’s like to be in that situation.”
The value of groundups lies in their ability to stay close to the ground and meet needs more quickly and innovatively.
If establishing your own groundup sounds too daunting, you could always try volunteering at one.
Stigma2Strength (Singapore) is seeking volunteers to help with social media marketing, event planning and logistics, administrative work, and more. Those who are keen may reach out to Jenny via email at Jennyteo.email@example.com.
Alternatively, if you’re thinking of taking the plunge and forming your own groundup, you can refer to NVPC’s handy guidebook for all you need to know.
The BAGUS (Building All Groundups for Success) Together website is also a great place for more information and resources.
Hope for a more accepting & compassionate society
Despite a lack of formal marketing, there has been no shortage of invitations for Jenny to give talks at various institutions – something she is immensely thankful for.
But there is still much work to be done. Her objective is for Stigma2Strength (Singapore) to reach “every tier of society”.
“To me, suicide prevention is everybody’s business, so as long as I’m given an opportunity to give a talk, I will take it.”
With every person she reaches out to, we get one step closer to a society that isn’t just more than willing to extend a helping hand to those who need it but is also more equipped and empowered to engage in managing suicide risk and preventing youth suicides.
And that is a future worth looking forward to.
If you or anyone you know needs support, do try calling these hotlines:
- Samaritans of Singapore Hotline: 1767
- Institute of Mental Health’s Helpline: 6389 2222
- Singapore Association for Mental Health Helpline: 1800 283 7019
This post was brought to you in collaboration with the National Volunteer And Philanthropy Centre.
Featured image by MS News. Photography by Shawn Low.
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