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Detecting signals for help, keeping the gate of life

Dr Dorothy Li

Educational Psychologist

     The Education Bureau (EDB) places great emphasis on the mental health of students. In particular, early identification of and intervention for students with mental health problems and suicidal risks is of utmost importance. Students highly at risk seldom take the initiative to seek help, but it is likely to find them displaying obvious alarming signs in everyday lives. For example, they may reveal negative thoughts or even the wish for death and suicidal ideation in daily conversations or on social media. There are also less obvious signs that can only be detected by sensitive people around. For example, some students may become more and more unkempt, have a sudden decline in academic performance, or exhibit the tendency to isolate themselves. In view of this, the EDB has made substantial efforts in recent years to provide teachers, parents and students with “gatekeeper” training and useful information so that when they know how to identify persons with such alarming signs, they are in a better position to help resolve crises by offering assistance, care, encouragement and support, and by making timely referrals for professional support.

Early identification and intervention: crucial role of teachers

     With a key role in identifying and helping at-risk students, all teachers should possess the knowledge and skills of “gatekeeping”. A Resource Handbook for Schools: Detecting, Supporting and Making Referral for Students with Suicidal Behaviours published by the EDB, which can be downloaded from the newly launched Mental Health @ School website (mentalhealth.edb.gov.hk), provides teachers with an in-depth understanding of risk factors and protective factors of suicide, the knowledge and skills in detecting alarming signs of suicide, and practical tips for responding to students’ suicidal behaviours. In addition, schools are urged to arrange for school-based educational psychologists to share with all teachers their professional knowledge in identifying and supporting students with suicidal risks for better dissemination of the idea of “gatekeeping” among teachers. With the commencement of the new school year, it is an opportune time for schools to organise the above training for newly-joined teachers so that they will learn how to detect suicidal signs and deal with students’ suicidal behaviours appropriately.

Peer support: “Peer Power – Student Gatekeeper Training Programme”

     Some students are more reluctant to confide their problems to teachers and will only express their negative thoughts and emotions to peers, so it is equally important for students to receive “gatekeeper” training. Research studies have revealed that secondary school students who have received training are more capable of referring peers with suicidal behaviours to adults for follow-up. In this regard, the EDB has launched the “Peer Power – Student Gatekeeper Training Programme” to train students as “peer leaders” through a series of school-based and joint-school training, which introduces methods to maintain mental well-being, common mental illnesses, and practical skills in caring for and dealing with peers in distress. The training particularly stresses the importance of seeking help from reliable adults. Upon completion of “gatekeeper” training, “peer leaders” will help organise different kinds of school activities on promoting mental health to increase the awareness and understanding of mental health among students and teachers. In view of the desirable results achieved by the Programme, the EDB will expand its coverage in this school year so that more students can get a grasp of the skills and strategies of “gatekeeping”.

Acting as gatekeepers for children: Parent Workshop on Gatekeeper Training

     Parents play a pivotal role in promoting the mental health of children and supporting them in times of stress or emotional disturbance. As such, Parent Workshops on Gatekeeper Training are organised online by the EDB. To increase parents’ awareness and understanding of mental health, enhance their ability to identify and support mentally distressed children, and help remove the negative label associated with seeking help from others, each parent is required to receive eight-hour training. Given the overwhelming positive feedback from participating parents, the number of places for the workshops this year will be increased to 500 to engage more parents in “gatekeeper” training. The coming workshops target at parents of upper primary students, who may enrol in the activities through the Mental Health @ School website next month. To help parents refresh ideas about promoting children’s mental health at any time they wish, tips for parents are generated from the workshops and placed on the Mental Health @ School website for download. Parents are advised to display such tips at a prominent place at home to remind themselves to take care of their own as well as their children’s mental health at all times. For schools, they may plan their parent activities by making reference to the relevant resources of the workshops and join hands with parents in acting as the “gatekeepers” of children and students.

     The alarming signs of suicide and mental health problems are in fact cries for help. We hope to have more “gatekeepers” around, so that we can be more alert to such signals. Then, we can take a further step for students at risk, offer them care and support, and direct them to appropriate professional support services. To safeguard our students, let us work together to provide a safety net and see them through difficulties to enable their healthy development.


Closing ceremony of the Peer Power – Student Gatekeeper Training Programme


Training activity of the Peer Power – Student Gatekeeper Training Programme


Peer leaders organise different kinds of school activities to promote mental health


Parents are given tips on promoting mental health at the online workshops organised by the Education Bureau.

26 September 2021