Question on reducing suicide by charcoal burning by Hon KP Chan:
In 2006 to 2007, the Government commissioned the Hong Kong Jockey Club Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention of the University of Hong Kong (the Research Centre) to conduct a pilot scheme of changing the method of selling charcoal packs (the pilot scheme) in Tuen Mun, under which the shelves for keeping charcoal in supermarkets were locked and anyone who wanted to buy charcoal was required to contact the staff first. According to the report on the pilot scheme, the rate of charcoal burning suicide in Tuen Mun reduced substantially by more than 50% from 4.3 per 100 000 before the pilot scheme to two per 100 000 after the pilot scheme; for the same period, the rate of charcoal burning suicide in Yuen Long, a district selected as a control in the experiment, increased by over 40% from three per 100 000 to 4.3 per 100 000. Regarding the total number of all fatal suicide cases for the same period, the number of such cases in Tuen Mun reduced by more than 30% while that for Yuen Long remained broadly the same. It is noted that the International Association for Suicide Prevention and experts in suicide prevention from the United Kingdom have affirmed their support in the findings of the pilot scheme. The Secretary for Food and Health also indicated in March this year that according to the study of the University of Hong Kong, an effective approach to prevent suicide in community settings was to reduce people’s access to suicide means. However, in reply to a relevant question on March 2 this year, the Secretary for Labour and Welfare indicated that as the pilot scheme did not have substantial impact on reducing suicide attempts, the authorities have no plan to implement the pilot scheme in all 18 districts in Hong Kong. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:
(a) why the aforesaid two Directors of Bureaux had reached different conclusions regarding the pilot scheme;
(b) whether the authorities will use both the number of attempted suicide cases and that of fatal suicide cases as indicators for assessing the effectiveness of the aforesaid scheme and other suicide prevention schemes, instead of only considering the changes in the number of attempted suicide cases; although at present the authorities have no plan to implement the pilot scheme in all 18 districts in Hong Kong, whether they will consider implementing the scheme in at least some districts;
(c) whether the authorities will enhance publicity and public education on the pain, permanent injury to the body and severe residual defects that can be caused by charcoal burning suicide, as well as the long-term serious impacts on the family members of the victims of suicide; whether the Government will consider conducting a cost-benefit analysis on the suicide preventive measures in Hong Kong; and
(d) as the figures of the Research Centre have revealed that the number of cases of charcoal burning suicide increased from 143 in 2007 to 167 in 2008, and to 177 in 2009, and among them, the number of cases for the age group of 35 to 44 was the highest, whether the authorities will consider formulating measures in response to the higher rate of charcoal burning suicide by people belonging to that age group, with a view to taking proper intervention and follow-up actions before they choose to end their lives by charcoal burning, and whether they will consider conducting or subsidising relevant organisations to conduct a territory-wide longitudinal study on reducing people’s access to means of suicide by charcoal burning?
The Administration’s consolidated reply to the four parts of the question raised by the Hon Chan Kin-por is as follows:
In 2006, the Administration commissioned the Hong Kong Jockey Club Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention of the University of Hong Kong (the Research Centre) to conduct a study on a community-based programme for preventing suicide in Tuen Mun. As part of the study, a pilot scheme of changing the method of selling charcoal packs (the pilot scheme) was implemented with the collaboration of the Social Welfare Department (SWD), Hospital Authority (HA), Tuen Mun Hospital, Tuen Mun Police District as well as five supermarkets and convenience stores in the district. During the pilot scheme, the shelves for keeping charcoal in the said supermarkets and convenience stores were locked so that anyone who wanted to buy charcoal had to contact the staff first. The purpose was to find out the correlation between restricting public access to individual means of suicide and the number of suicide choosing such means as well as the overall number of suicide. While the efficacy of the scheme in reducing the number of charcoal burning suicide cases is recognised, further study is required as we are also concerned about the possible increase of suicide by other means as a result of the scheme. There is no discrepancy between the conclusions of the two Directors of Bureaux.
Apart from preventive measures targeting at individual means of suicide, the Administration also attaches much importance to tackling the problem from the root. In order to reduce the number of suicide and suicide attempts, emotional support counselling and public education, etc are provided to assist the emotionally disturbed and to advocate positive thinking and attitudes. In this connection, the Government has been taking a multi-pronged approach in preventing suicide.
On welfare services, to meet the needs of people with suicidal tendency (including people aged 35 to 44), SWD provides crisis intervention and intensive counselling services for them through subventing the Suicide Crisis Intervention Centre (SCIC) of the Samaritan Befrienders Hong Kong (SBHK). As persons with suicidal tendency may leave traces on blogs or online groups, etc, SWD has subvented the SCIC’s “Blog Searching Scheme” since November 2009 to strengthen online patrols by searching blogs for keywords like “suicide” and offering emotional support services for persons with high suicidal risk. The SCIC also operates the “Suicide Survivors Service” to provide services to relatives and friends of those who had committed suicide.
Moreover, SWD has increased the provision for the SBHK to introduce a three-year “Web Engagement Project” starting from August 2010. Riding on the prevalence of internet surfing for information, the project reaches out and provides services to those in need through interactive platforms such as emails and chatrooms, and produces short films and case stories promoting positive values of life. The painful experience and after-defects caused by various means of suicide, including charcoal burning suicide, are also illustrated on the dedicated website of the project by phases.
On medical and health services, HA’s psychiatric units conduct comprehensive suicidal risk assessments for needy cases and arrange various follow-up services. In addition, a task force on in-patient suicide has been set up and put in place various measures to reinforce the current prevention against in-patient suicide.
As for publicity and public education, SWD will continue to collaborate with the relevant Government departments through different activities and media to promote positive messages of treasuring life and positive attitude towards adversities.
When exploring suicide preventive measures, the Administration will make reference to relevant information including figures of suicide deaths and suicide attempts as well as findings of relevant academic research. Academic research helps enhance our understanding of the issue and trend of suicide and provides useful reference to facilitate the formulation of suicide preventive measures. Therefore, the Administration has all along been supportive of studies on suicide undertaken by research institutes. In June 2011, SWD commissioned the Research Centre with funding from the Lotteries Fund to implement a pilot project on community-based prevention of suicide (the pilot project) in the North District and its surrounding areas. The three-year pilot project, to be launched in July this year, targets mainly at youths aged 15 to 24 as well as persons with suicidal tendency in the local communities. Awareness of suicide prevention at the community level will be raised through public education and publicity, and the efficacy of various suicide prevention measures will be examined. With the application of a Geographic Information System for analysing and identifying areas and groups with higher suicide risks, community-based collaborative networks will be set up to mobilise community resources in the provision of targeted educational, supportive and counselling services for the vulnerable to prevent suicide. The Administration will maintain close liaison with the research team to keep in view and follow up on the outcome of the pilot project.