On the morning of what was supposed to be her daughter’s final semester at school, the day when they’d give back the preliminary exam results, Linda Collins awoke to news that Victoria had stepped off the ledge of a nearby apartment block.
In the five years since that day, Collins has tried to retrace her daughter’s footsteps to pinpoint the reason she took her life, as well as grapple with her own loss, as she chronicles in her new book. But none of that helped.
“It’s not something that you can get better from,” she says. “There’s no fix for that.”
Not even writing Loss Adjustment gave her catharsis. How could it be, when you had to relive the memory of seeing a loved one’s body on bloodied tiles and the blurred days that followed, where you had to identify their body at the morgue, dress them for their funeral, and pick the remnants of their still-whole bones from their ashes?
Loss Adjustment is as much a memoir for Victoria’s life as it is a critique of the insidious stressors lurking within the modern-day school system. Collins understands that trying to assign blame in a suicide is a complex, if not fruitless endeavour: But she also doesn’t hesitate to call out the education system that repeatedly failed her struggling daughter.
Last week, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong held a dialogue with students from the Singapore University of Social Sciences, where he stated that there is no ‘stigma or shame’ attached to failure in Singapore.
But Victoria’s private journal entries, returned to Collins after the police had been through her laptop, paint a different picture. In them, she writes of her school’s undue emphasis on succeeding at exams. Getting into university after graduation was the be-all and end-all. Vocational guidance officers pontificated about the scores required to get into specific universities and courses, and how best to achieve said scores; Nothing was said about an alternative future that didn’t involve getting into a conventional, brand-name university.
It’s a sentiment that echoes even in Singapore’s mainstream schools today. Earlier this year, the deputy chief of the Instituite of Mental Health’s department of developmental psychiatry said that more students are seeking help at IMH due to school-related stress.
That toxic mentality had seeped down into Victoria herself, so much that she, too, began to believe that if she couldn’t get into a conventional university after graduation, there was no other option for her: ‘I know that when I see my grades, I will either jump for joy, or jump off the top floor of this condo,’ she wrote in one diary entry published in Loss Adjustment.
For Collins, the revelations gleaned from Victoria’s journal entries are bittersweet. They allow her to hear her daughter’s voice once more, to be close to her again—but they also reveal fresh hurts.
“I wish I had stood back and realised that this system is geared for creating economic units,” she says. “What if you get someone whose talents take time to nurture?
“With the current education system, there’s no room to allow young people to fail.”
After Victoria’s death, Collins threw herself into a flurry of activity. She took up a half-year counselling course where she learned to help those in need of it. Following that, she taught Speech and Drama courses to young children. (“I did it because Victoria felt she couldn’t speak up in class, so I felt that if I learned to speak up for myself, that would honour her,” she says).
She later took up a Masters in Creative Writing at the serendipitously-named Victoria University of Wellington, where she began the ‘gruelling’ process of writing what would become Loss Adjustment. And while reliving her memories proved to be painful, she also felt it necessary. “I was grief-stricken, but I just wanted to get the story down,” she says.
Singapore may have become more open about discussing topics like mental health and suicide, and yet, suicide rates continue to rise: Just last year, suicide rates amongst boys aged 10 to 19 hit a record high.
“I know another mother whose child took her own life 8 years ago, and back then, people tried to hush it up,” says Collins. “Nobody wanted to talk about it. Some people even encouraged her to go on holiday.”
That’s why she’s publicising her grief. Collins hopes that her story, as well as Victoria’s, might encourage Singaporeans to keep the conversation on mental health and academic pressure alive to one day enact change.
Collins still tries to find ways to feel close to Victoria. Hearing her name being said helps. Visiting her old haunts does, too: Like any teenage girl, Victoria enjoyed mall trawling after school. She especially liked ION Orchard, and would flit between the usual adolescent stops of Forever 21, New Look, and Starbucks, trying on clothes and splurging on tooth-rottingly sweet drinks.
And at the end of the conversation, Collins checks her watch: “I’ve still got some time before I’m needed back in office.” She thinks for a moment, and says, “I think I’ll spend some time at ION.”
If you or someone else you know needs help, you can call the Samaritans of Singapore’s 24-hour helpline at 1800 221 4444.