Most normal people find it hard to relate to people suffering from mental illness.
As much as we pity them and hope their loved ones will take care of them and give them proper medical attention, we simply don’t know what’s going on in their minds.
Dr. Alice Ng Hoi-yi is a psychiatrist.
She has been on the front line of reaching out to some of the most vulnerable people in society, having served with the mobile service station for street sleepers of the Salvation Army Health & Care Express for two years.
She has been able to put herself in the sufferers’ shoes not only because of her ample medical training, but also because of an excruciating personal experience that has given her a unique insight into their minds.
Ng was raised in a medical family with her father being a doctor and her mother a nurse. That easily paved her path towards a medical profession.
But as she was pursuing her specialization in psychiatry, she began to have doubts.
She recalled that back then she couldn’t understand what’s wrong with her patients.
There were even times when she thought they were not ill at all but simply lacking in ability to deal with their personal issues and life’s challenges.
She started to feel that was she was doing was meaningless, compared to her peers in other specializations, such as those who save lives by performing surgeries.
Ng soon found herself often in a low mood, accompanied by symptoms of depression and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
When she did routine checks, she couldn’t help but do the task repeatedly as she worried she might have made a mistake.
She also washed her hands frequently and wiped her desk and objects with alcohol pads non-stop.
Her colleagues didn’t notice the symptoms as OCD patients are very good at hiding them, Ng explained.
Until one day she thought of harming herself.
She even studied the roster to find out who would be most affected and thought of the extent of work disruption that might occur if she succumbed to that deep, dull and dark emptiness that was pulling her in.
Fortunately, one of her colleagues noticed some of her symptoms and tried to calm her by listening to her.
Though she is a doctor, she worried if she might turn into another person she herself wouldn’t know after taking medication.
But she struggled to look into her problems and understand herself.
She also accepted advice and guidance from her seniors, and with the help of medicines as well as psychotherapy, Ng was able to climb back from the depths.
“It was like plunging endlessly down an abyss of despair, where you find yourself useless and wasting your time, and no one could possibly understand you,” Ng said. “It turns worse as you feel like you would be better off dying than living every day.”
She said timely intervention and the support of loved ones are most crucial to those who have fallen into this emotional black hole.
One day, Ng heard from colleagues of an outreach program for street sleepers, and without hesitation she volunteered to help.
At the time she had not yet fully recovered from her OCD symptoms, but what the heck.
Soon enough she became so immersed in her work, and she began to feel she had something to give to be of help to the less fortunate.
Working with street sleepers may pose some hygiene issues, but Ng simply ignored them.
By devoting her time to heal others, she was also able to heal her obsession for cleanliness.
In a dark corner of an alley, Ng could be seen helping empty the colostomy bag of a psychiatric patient.
Underneath a footbridge, she once helped cleanse and sterilize the already maggot-ridden wound of a street dweller.
Ng said around one-third of street sleepers suffer from mental illness. They live in a hostile and unclean environment, but they lack the ability to take care of themselves on account of their illness.
Currently the voluntary group consists of five to six psychiatrists, nurses and social workers, paying weekly visits to street dwellers at night.
Some of the patients had received treatments from government clinics, but as their conditions turned worse, they got lost in the streets and missed their appointments.
Since they don’t have a permanent address, the government could not readily locate them and offer assistance.
To make matters worse, the government has cut the already limited budget of the Hospital Authority, which inevitably results in more patients being forced out of the public health system.
Ng is saddened by the situation, but instead of feeling helpless, she has pledged to herself that she will do her utmost to help as many patients as she can.
She said society as a whole is responsible for psychiatric patients ending up in the streets.
“The community has too many misconceptions about mental illnesses and those who suffer from them,” she said.
Mental illness is prevalent, and many people are not even aware that they are suffering from it or have recovered from it.
What troubles her a lot is that many “normal” individuals are turning a blind eye to the presence of these “abnormal” people who are living in pain.
“I would rather stay with the ‘abnormal’ than live a so-called normal life in which I have to neglect those who suffer,” Ng said.
She hopes that one day the stigma related to the illness will be lifted, and people will reach out to those in need.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug. 18.
Translation by Darlie Yiu
[Chinese version 中文版]
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