28 October 2016
The fear and disgust that many Hongkongers have for people with mental health problems may stem from ignorance, because many people have never had a chance to get to know a person with a mental disability.    Photo: HKEJ
The fear and disgust that many Hongkongers have for people with mental health problems may stem from ignorance, because many people have never had a chance to get to know a person with a mental disability. Photo: HKEJ

Hong Kong’s shameful problem

Hong Kong has a problem with mental health, and, come to think of it, with other aspects of dealing with those who are not considered to be “normal”.

Although people suffering these afflictions deserve to be the focus of our attention, what is really worrying is how other Hongkongers behave toward them.

The recent deplorable row over the relocation of a school for pupils with emotional and behavioral problems has highlighted quite how bad the situation is.

This school has operated for some time in south Lantau and will now be relocated in Tuen Mun.

It was quite bad enough when objections were raised by the headmaster of a neighboring “normal” school who labeled the incoming students as being “drug users”, “sexually promiscuous” and “gangsters”.

This irresponsibility was then compounded by low-life politicians joining the clamor on grounds of the detrimental effect this school would have on the neighborhood.

These dimwits have now sought to mitigate their stupidity by characterizing their opposition as a “communication failure”.

Unfortunately for them, their prejudice and ignorance are there for all to see.

The school’s head and its governing committee have now apologized but, in so doing, blamed the Education Bureau for insufficient consultation and said that they themselves were misled by the bureau’s documents outlining the purpose of the incoming school.

As the government’s education bureaucrats seem incapable of touching any issue without bungling it, there may be a scintilla of truth here, but it barely excuses the shocking outpouring of prejudice from the school and its pro-government political allies.

Were this a one-off incident, we could all sit back and merely tut-tut about it.

However, an Equal Opportunities Commission survey conducted in 2011 found that more than half the participants did not want people with mental illness to live in their neighborhoods.

An even larger proportion, about 70 per cent, did not want children with mental health problems integrated into mainstream schools.

Public prejudice is compounded by official negligence, as Hong Kong suffers from a lack of psychiatric doctors and nurses, so that people with these problems are forced to join very long queues for treatment.

Hospital Authority outpatient clinics were forcing patients with psychiatric problems to wait an average of eight weeks for an appointment in 2013-14, a waiting time that is now growing.

However, all this assumes that those with mental illnesses are even prepared to seek help.

The Hong Kong Mental Morbidity Survey 2012-13 estimated that as many as one in seven local people were suffering from mood disorders, including anxiety and depression, but only 26 per cent of those sought professional help.

The stigma associated with any kind of mental illness is sufficient to ensure that sufferers remain in denial or are avoiding assistance because of concern that seeking help will give rise to even bigger problems.

More recently, we have seen even more desperate indications of the severity of this problem as student suicides have risen.

Clearly, all this is very worrying for people living with mental problems, but it is also a severe problem for society as a whole.

Prejudice against mentally ill people and ignorance of their plight is not merely inhumane but leads to considerable loss.

Those suffering from mental ailments can be expected to have poorer educational opportunities and to be excluded from a whole range of jobs.

Meanwhile, people with these ailments who keep them concealed are inevitably less productive and able to cope.

It is not as if mental disorders cannot be treated, even in quite severe cases.

Nor is it the case, as seems to be routinely assumed, that people with these disorders inevitably represent a threat to others.

However the high level of prejudice and indifference in Hong Kong militates against treatment and forms the backdrop for a growing mental health problem.

I would like to conclude on a personal note.

When I was a child, I grew up with a family who lived nearby whose daughter had severe mental problems.

My parents, to their great credit, insisted that my sisters and myself should have a lot of interaction with this child, who was of a similar age.

She was a lovely person but with obvious limitations that rapidly became understood and accepted.

I hope she benefited by mixing with us “normal” children, but I am absolutely sure that we benefited as much or even more from knowing her, playing with her and being part of her world.

It taught us levels of understanding that could not be accessed from textbooks, and it made us far more aware of the boundaries of what is “normal” and what is different yet still valuable.

I cherish Caroline’s memory, although she unfortunately died at an early age.

She gave us so much.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author

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