July 9, 2019 / 9:00 AM / 6 days ago

Mental health issues in Hong Kong surging amid tumultuous protests, experts say

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Stress and trauma over the political turmoil surrounding Hong Kong’s extradition bill has created an unprecedented mental health problem that the city is not equipped to deal with, medical professionals say.

Discussion of mental health carries a huge stigma in the Chinese-ruled territory, and younger people are particularly vulnerable because of the stresses of everyday life: exorbitant living costs, cramped housing, academic pressure and a gloomy view of the future, medical professionals say.

On Tuesday, embattled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said the bill, which would allow people to be extradited to mainland China for trial, was “dead.” In the same remarks, she acknowledged that there were entrenched social problems in Hong Kong.

“I come to the conclusion that there are some fundamental deep-seated problems in Hong Kong society. It could be economic problems, it could be livelihood issues, it could be political divisions in society,” Lam said. “The first thing we should do is identify those fundamental issues and hopefully find some solutions to move forward.”

Hong Kong’s youth have been at the forefront of the city’s biggest and most violent protests in decades, with police firing rubber bullets and tear gas in chaotic scenes that grabbed global headlines.

Anger and frustration over the extradition bill, and the government’s handling of it, have pushed many to desperation. The deaths of four young people have been linked to frustration with the legislation, while messages from at least three others have triggered emergency responses.

“It’s hard to see the future if there is no solution. Our government should understand how we think,” said Kayi Wong, a 23-year-old designer who attended the city’s latest protest on Sunday, which organisers said drew 230,000 people.

Wong said she felt depressed reading about the recent deaths. Many people feared there would be more amid multiple societal problems, she added, including housing issues, family troubles and what she described as an inability to communicate feelings effectively to each other.

The special administrative region is still reeling from events on July 1, when protesters smashed their way into the Legislative Council building and ransacked it.

Lam had suspended the bill after earlier protests in June and said it would lapse next year, but protesters want it scrapped altogether and have pressed her to step down.

She said on Tuesday the government had felt “pain” over recent deaths in the city.

FILE PHOTO: Demonstrators stand outside the Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam's office during a demonstration demanding Hong Kong's leaders to step down and withdraw the extradition bill, in Hong Kong, China, June 17, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter/File Photo

Calls to support groups and local non-governmental organisations have surged, particularly after storming of the legislative building, said Karman Leung, chief executive of one such group, Samaritans Hong Kong.

“The news repeats day after day. Everybody is talking about it. It causes them stress and they feel like they cannot get out of that environment,” Leung said.

‘DOUBLE WHAMMY’

Because of the stigma surrounding mental health and with a heated political issue at the root of their stress, people don’t feel they can talk about it, said Zoe Fortune, the chief executive of City Mental Health Alliance.

“It’s a double whammy and people don’t know where to go for support,” she said.

Conflict between family members with different standpoints increases tension and further fractures society, say volunteer counselling groups.

Some such organisations, including the Division of Counselling Psychology, under the Hong Kong Psychological Society, have started offering free counselling.

A person seeking treatment for mild depression at a public facility would have to wait more than a year to see a psychologist, said Jasmin Fong, a counselling psychologist for the Psychological Society.

A private 50-minute session with a psychologist costs between HK$800-HK$3000 ($102-$384), making private treatment out of reach for large swathes of the population.

Online groups using mobile applications such as Telegram have sprung up to prevent future deaths. One chat assembled thousands of members to find a Facebook user who posted that he planned to kill himself.

Members split into teams at 40 spots around the city’s Admiralty district, the scene of some of the largest protests, and tried to get him to talk to trained social workers. He was later found unharmed.

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Unless issues are solved fundamentally, the mounting mental stress won’t ease, said Joe, a Hong Kong student who declined to give his last name because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The arrests of young people, including a 14-year-old, in connection with the attack on the legislative building have only added to the burden, he said.

“They are Hong Kong people, just like our family members,” Joe said. “Very serious things are happening, so it is hard to stay positive and optimistic.”

Reporting by Farah Master; additional reporting by Donny Kwok; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and Gerry Doyle

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