Education system’s lack of mental health care may have “failed” 16-year-old who allegedly murdered fellow student, said RVHS almunus

The former student recalls "nightmare" of high-pressure school environment and lack of mental health support

As the nation, especially school students, grapple with the tragedy of a 13-year old student allegedly murdered by a 16-year-old in River Valley High School (RVHS), an alumnus has spoken up about how mental health issues are poorly handled by both the school and the Singaporean education system.

Sharing their testimony to timetotalksg Instagram page, which was posted on Tuesday (20 July), the former RVHS student noted how the recent incident has left them “shaking, overwhelmed and full of negative emotions” for hours.

The author expressed that they were “afraid that the culture of River Valley and the general Singaporean Education system has led to this unfortunate incident”, adding that it is “mildly distressing” that this was their first thought upon hearing the news, as it shows how “little faith” they have in RVHS to handle mental issues.

The RVHS alumnus then highlighted the comments pouring in online on the day of the incident, which were “quick to blame” and “jump to conclusions” like blaming violent video games for the incident — or even the author’s own parents who thought that the culprit could’ve had bad influence from outside of school.

The author said they were “surprised and distressed” upon realising that people are so defensive of the education system that they “come up with multiple speculations, none of which are targeted at the school or at the education system”.

Some of these speculations include that the alleged murderer was “just a bad apple” or that it was due to outside factors, the former RVHS student pointed out.

The author conceded that while there may be other factors behind the student’s poor mental health, it could also be that the education system and RVHS have “failed” him.

The RVHS alumnus then quoted several points about the 16-year-old student that were reported in the news, including that he was assessed at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) in 2019 after an attempted suicide, as noted by the police prosecutor in court. Also, the Minister of Law and Home Affairs was quoted as saying that the student has “some history of mental health issues”.

From there, the author wrote: “I certainly do not condone murder, and what he has done is something horrendous that cannot be turned backwards. Despite any mental health issues I have had, I would never do something like this.

“However, there is a small part of me that can’t help but feel sorry for the murderer. How much trauma and stress has he gone through to drive him to do something like this?”

The “nightmare” experience at RVHS

The former RVHS student then recalled their own experience at the school which they claimed left them “traumatised for years” and even now.

“I still have nightmares about studying in school, about having to take the A levels, and I wake up and remember that I’ve graduated.

“[There are] years of unresolved trauma from RVHS in my formative years that can never be erased, and I was diagnosed with moderate clinical depression and severe clinical anxiety,” the author expressed.

Conceding that not all of it can be blamed on on the school, the RVHS alumnus still stressed that their experience at the school was “really painful”, describing it as the “worse and darkest period” of their life.

The post continued: “In my opinion, the school is elitist, and they don’t seem to care very much about the mental health and welfare of students. Accolades and accomplishments are at the top of their priority list – students who are less popular, or who do not perform well, are shoved to the bottom of the barrel.”

More popular students or those with stellar grades, however, are treated well by the teachers, the author stated.

Recalling an incident during their time at the school, the former RVHS student shared that they were once kicked out of a classroom by a teacher the day after a chronic illness relapse left them incapacitated, resulting in them being unable to complete the assigned homework.

“I tried to explain to him that I was ill the day before, and I couldn’t finish my homework, but I tried my best to work on it – he didn’t really believe me,” the author recounted.

Noting how this memory has stayed with them over the years, the RVHS alumnus highlighted the impact a teacher can have on a student.

“If you make a student feel hurt or humiliated, it sticks with them for life. It’s a deep, lasting paint that is hard to reverse,” the author stressed.

While acknowledging that there were “some great teachers” at RVHS, the fact that these more problematic teachers were allowed to “continue such blatant bias without any repercussions” shows the “cracks in the system” at the school.

The former RVHS student went on to recall a time when they were close to committing suicide in the school toilet but was saved by a friend who burst in and snatched the knife away. While there were other factors involved, they still dreaded going to school where they were “bullied but nobody seemed to really care”.

Anticipating some backlash on this part, the author added a disclaimer: “Before you say that I’m only one student – I know multiple people from my batch or from batched below me that have transferred out of the school because they felt immense pressure studying there.

“I know people who cried every day after school because of how agonising school was for them, and their form teachers knew but nothing was done.”

The RVHS alumnus went on to recall a time when a schoolmate had approached a counsellor for help due to severe bullying, but the counsellor pressured them to reveal who their form teacher was.

The counsellor then told the teacher. Unfortunately, the teacher responded by saying that this student must have done something wrong to be bullied, the author claimed.

“That’s just outright victim blaming without doing anything to solve the situation. Is this how a teacher should react to their students? Children who aren’t even 18?”

The former RVHS student went on to say that they have sympathy for the students, parents, and some of the staff at RVHS over the incident, offering their condolences to the parents of the victim.

“I hope the school follows up with it properly,” the author expressed.

They continued, “However, within me – there is also anger, there is indignance at the situation, there is a desperate cry for change, to ensure that the recent horrors will never repeat themselves.”

“The 17 year old in me is calling out in anguish for the school to start taking mental health seriously, to put aside achievement and focus on the human side of students. We are all human. We aren’t just trophies for the school, or achievement-getting robots.”

“This goes out not only to RVHS – but Singaporeans schools in general,” the RVHS alumnus stressed.

“We owe it to the victim and the perpetrator, too, to call for change.”

Emphasising that the post isn’t a personal attack on RVHS, the author acknowledged the pressures that the school staff get from the Government and the public to “perform and stay at the top of their game”.

“There were some good teachers. There were some good times. I’m just sorry to say that the bad times far outweighed the good,” the former RVHS student explained.

“This is a call for society to change the way you view teenagers, to change perceptions on mental health and on grades. To be gentle with the youth, to not throw the younger generation into a pressure cooker in hopes that they will turn from coal into diamonds.”

“If you truly want to stop something this appalling from happening again, call for change,” the author remarked.

Normalise talking about mental health issues

The RVHS alumnus went on to urge parents to educate themselves on mental health, respect their children’s needs, and reassure their children that examinations don’t matter as much. They also urged parents to learn the signs of emotional distress and to “pay attention”.

To students, the author offered sympathy that they have to experience such a horrifying incident, urging them to speak up and recognise that they know what they need best.

The former RVHS student then offered advice to teachers, specifically to reflect on what they say to their students.

Stressing that students are “young and impressionable”, the author called on teachers to advocate for more than one counsellor per school, as well as to learn more about mental health and how they can protect and prioritise their students.

“As grown adults, it is easy for us to invalidate the stresses and hardships of children, thinking that their plate is far lighter than our own, but that is a detrimental mindset to have, especially for an educator,” the RVHS alumnus stated.

Finally, to members of the public, the author stressed that mental health should not be stigmatised but instead made into a topic that everyone can talk about and discuss.

“Normalise talks, seminars, workshops on mental health,” the former RVHS student asserted.

The author lamented, “It is absolutely devastating that an innocent 13 year old has to die for this to be a wake up call, that it’s the 21st century and mental health is such an important issue that not enough people talk about.”

The RVHS alumnus concluded the post saying that the post has nothing to do with current RVHS students and pleaded for the people to respect their privacy and not harass them for information.

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