The tragedy that rocked Singapore this week, when a 16-year-old student at a prestigious high school allegedly murdered a 13-year-old boy with an axe and left him dead in a toilet, appears to be rooted in a severe mental health crisis—and the school where the incident took place had recently won a national award for its mental health awareness campaign.
On Tuesday, an 11th grader at River Valley High School in the affluent Boon Lay neighborhood, was charged with the gruesome killing of a younger student, who he reportedly did not know.
The day prior, police had rushed to the campus around noon after receiving calls for help from the school, according to The Straits Times. Screenshots of messages from terrified students describing a boy who “looks crazy,” was “holding a big axe,” and “washing away blood” began circulating on social media. The suspect was arrested, the alleged victim was pronounced dead on the scene, and all other students were eventually safely evacuated, according to local media reports.
Prosecutors who appeared virtually in court Tuesday, along with the suspect and his lawyer, said that the teenager had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital after a suicide attempt two years ago, and was later discharged. The suspect has a “history of mental health issues,” Singapore’s Law Minister wrote on Facebook.
Adding to the shock of an already devastating tragedy: River Valley High had received a Silver Ribbon Mental Health Award for “actively promoting mental health” in December, according to the school website and social media posts on the official accounts of Silver Ribbon Singapore, a mental health NGO launched by the country’s former president.
River Valley High vice-principal Alvin Lau gave a speech at the award ceremony at the time. “We actually teach our students about mental health issues in lessons… to help raise their awareness. What are mental health issues, what are the symptoms, so that they can recognize the signs in themselves and their peers,” he said, according to a write-up in The Straits Times around the time the award was bestowed. He had added that such lessons are aimed at preventing students “from falling into negative thoughts and having anxiety issues.”
Singapore is known for its rigorous, competitive educational system, and schools across the country had been attempting to ramp up their mental health awareness initiatives in light of the added stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the BBC. Singapore’s Institute of Mental Health, the same hospital that had reportedly admitted the high school student charged with the River High murder, had also reported a spike in emergency mental health cases throughout the pandemic, though exact figures have not been released.
“Like all of us, I was shocked by yesterday’s tragic incident at River Valley High School,” Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wrote in a Facebook post on Tuesday. “We cannot make sense of what happened. Words fail us because we cannot understand.”
He added: “The police are still investigating this case, to find out the motivations behind this tragedy, and if something could have been done to avert it… Beyond our schools, the pandemic has been tough on everyone. If sometimes things seem too much to bear, please remember help is always available, even if it’s just to talk to someone about what’s on your mind.”
Given the suspect’s history of mental health struggles, prosecutors requested he be submitted for a psychiatric evaluation, which was granted by the judge, according to The Straits Times. The student is slated to appear in court again on August 10.