19 May 2019
Attributing gun violence to mental health issues, some US public figures, including Donald Trump, have been accused of seeking to divert people's attention away from deep-rooted social problems. Photo: Reuters
Attributing gun violence to mental health issues, some US public figures, including Donald Trump, have been accused of seeking to divert people's attention away from deep-rooted social problems. Photo: Reuters

What insights can HK draw from the gun violence issue in the US?

The school mass shooting incident in Parkland, Florida in February has not only re-ignited fierce public debate in the US over gun control, it also sparked a nationwide popular movement for tightening regulation of the sales of firearms to civilians.

However, immediately after the school shooting, it appears President Donald Trump has attempted to steer the media’s and the public’s attention from the fundamental question of gun control by focusing on the mental health issues of the gunman rather than on how he acquired his guns.

In fact what Trump did is a typical example of how mental health patients are often smeared and scapegoated by the authorities so as to divert public attention away from the root causes of some of the pressing social issues.

And the same thing is also constantly happening to psychiatric patients in Hong Kong.

In fact so far there is yet to be any conclusive and sufficient information that proves the correlation between mental disorders and violence.

Instead, many past studies have indicated that only a very small portion of violent crimes were committed by people with mental disorders.

For instance, according to statistics cited by the New York Times, among all the school violence incidents that took place in the US in 2016, only 4 percent of them were committed by people with severe mental health issues.

Moreover, only less than 5 percent of all the gun violence incidents that took place between 2001 and 2010 in the country were carried out by people with psychiatric disorders.

All these figures are pointing to one important fact: portraying mental health patients as the main source of violence in society is misleading as well as groundless.

In recent months, Hong Kong has witnessed several tragedies that involved people with mental health issues.

In one case, a grandmother who had demonstrated depression symptoms was suspected of murdering her grandson who was also allegedly suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

If we just single-mindedly focused on the mental health problems of the individuals who have committed these violent crimes and blamed them entirely on their illness, we would be oversimplifying the issue and overlooking the more fundamental root causes for these tragedies.

Let’s take the above-mentioned case of the suspected murder of a child by his grandmother as an example.

If we solely focused on the mental disorders of that grandmother and blamed the case entirely on her illness, we would risk overlooking some of the more fundamental social factors that could also have contributed significantly to the tragedy.

These social factors include the stress and the deep sense of helplessness that are plaguing parents or carers who are looking after children with special education needs, as well as the lack of support for these school children under our current education system.

Suffice it to say that “medicalizing” these tragedies for whatever motives would only prevent us from truly addressing the more fundamental social, institutional and cultural root causes behind these tragic incidents.

Meanwhile, there is a prevailing notion among society that as long as the economy is good, everything will be fine.

However, the truth is, while Hong Kong’s GDP has been continually growing in recent years, so is the number of mental health patients in our city, suggesting that a booming economy wouldn’t necessarily enhance the mental wellness of our citizens.

Apparently, it takes a lot more than just maintaining a viable economy and introducing a wider variety of public services to substantially improve the mental and emotional health condition of our citizens.

As Wong Yan-lung, former Justice Secretary and chairman of the newly established Advisory Committee on Mental Health has said recently, the mental health issue in society is a very complicated question that requires a lot of time to figure out.

And, he added, a whole lot more supporting measures by the government are needed to address this problem.

Yet the key question is, how can our citizens stay mentally healthy when the vast majority of them are suffering from punishing working hours, mounting work-related stress, cramped living conditions, ever-increasing living expenses and a severe shortage in social service support on a daily basis?

Given this, I sincerely hope that members of the newly established Advisory Committee on Mental Health will not only divert more resources into remedial measures, they will also, more importantly, adopt a “scenario-oriented” approach to combating the problem of deteriorating mental wellness among the citizens.

To be more precise, I hope, when they advise the government on policy adjustments, they will put themselves in the shoes of the average individuals in society and take into account the various everyday problems the people are facing.

The goal should be creation of a more mental health friendly living environment for the citizens.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 14

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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