On the mental health of our youth

November 04, 2021 06:00
A recent survey conducted by the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups found that over a half of secondary school students surveyed showed signs of depression. Image:Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups

A recent survey conducted by the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups found that over a half of secondary school students surveyed showed signs of depression. Teens are finding it hard to concentrate at school, are increasingly easily irritated, and precipitously plagued by insomnia. In short, we’re witnessing, as I have repeatedly warned, a mental health pandemic.

And guess what? Perhaps a somewhat radical proposition here – but I’d wager that we just aren’t doing enough to serve those who matter. Two years back, in 2019, we saw similar results with the poll, where a significant number of youth surveyed exhibited anxiety and restlessness, in response to the sociopolitical turmoil that rocked our city.

It goes without saying that mental health is a matter of public health. Trivially, it’s in the name. But for those whose concern for public issues and items may well be more exclusively restricted to purely domains that ostensibly affect economic productivity – here’s the bad news: dilapidated mental health, whether it be the cataclysmic paranoia and bipolarities exhibited by some, or the pervasive Black Dog that afflicts large numbers of our future generations, is highly economically costly.

According to a Lancet article, in 2010, poor mental health was estimated to have cost our global economy approximately $2.5 trillion per year, when it came to the reduction to productivity and hamstringing of individuals’ personal wellbeing. This cost is anticipated to rise to $6 trillion by 2030. In Hong Kong’s context, the substantial psychosomatic and physiological symptoms of mental health issues not only pose a threat towards the harmony and intactness of our community (which, according to some, is of paramount importance!) – but also the economic output that we generate.

Full preface here, I do not think that we should be quantifying human lives and suffering through purely numbers; nor am I advancing the view that only GDP-impacting mental health onuses ought to be taken seriously. I am, indeed, making the more modest claim, that even independent of all humanitarian and public utility-centric reasoning, there exist strong reasons for us to care about how our youth, our teenagers are faring in their mental states.

What is the upshot? The first, is that we need genuine equipping of staff – especially those who are already hyper-stretched due to under-funding and long working hours – at schools, preferably designated ones – with sufficient mental health literacy to lend support to their students. We need greater sensitivity to mental health issues – such that we don’t have teachers or principals or senior academic advisors dismissing the plights of their students as merely emblematic of a weakness of character. We must also foment a culture at schools where young pupils can be more forthcoming about – and feel that they are welcome to discuss – their mental health struggles. From raising awareness at large through reformulated “PSHE classes” (or the local equivalent), to conducting regular talks, these have been measures that some schools have embraced – whilst others have eschewed, for fear of stigma associated with the public backlash.

Let’s be very clear here. No amount of public opprobrium (or our obligation to avert it as much) could ever justify the silencing and alienation of the most vulnerable. This is a principle that should undergird governance at large – we don’t leave behind the poor, the marginalised, the weak, and the oppressed, because they can’t vote for us; indeed, we don’t discard or disregard the voices of those who are suffering – all for the sake of preserving face. This is ludicrous. To the extent that schools are unwilling to confront the full extent of the mental health pandemic, the government must step in – indeed, these are times when the laissez-faire approach to economics is (rightfully) falling out of fashion. Let’s have more proactive engagement from the administration, then.

The second takeaway is that parents must also play a more active role – and educating parents must be featured as pivotal component of any cogent public mental health policy administered and enforced by our government. To the extent that parents are – in many cases – the most frequent contact persons for their children, it is all the more important that they can make sense of their children’s suffering, not as demonstrative of their bad parenting (mental health issues can arise from domestic abuse and negligent parenting, but the causal link between them is contingent and non-necessary) – but, instead, as a wake-up call, perhaps, that they need to spend more time with their children, and adjust the way they speak with their loved ones.

None of this ought to imply that we need to molly-cuddle the youth. We can and ought to provide as stimulating, as open and rigorous an education to our future generations as possible – but this cannot come at the expense of the very baseline of wellbeing that they must meet, in order to be able to participate fully and equally in learning processes. So let’s get our act together, and put an end, once and for all, to the myth – to the malignant, cancerous view that we can overcome mental health issues just by being “stronger”. No amount of individual strength, alone, can repair fundamentally broken systems. We need structural solutions.

-- Contact us at [email protected]

Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Political Review