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Friday, March 22, 2019, 10:32
Urgent action needed for the mentally vulnerable
By Stefan Dalton
Friday, March 22, 2019, 10:32 By Stefan Dalton

Growing cases of mental health problems among HK’s youths and the elderly are worrying. Relief programs and counseling services must provide professional help for them, Stefan Dalton writes.

Impressive statements were made in the 2019-20 Budget by the financial secretary on Feb 27. But where are the specific plans to address our mental health crises?

The budget outlined great emphasis on improving the physical aspects of health in the young, elderly, and individuals with disabilities; improving facilities; raising public awareness of disease prevention and self-health management. But nothing was specifically mentioned to improve public awareness of mental health, which continues to take a back seat.

With new cases of clinical depression emerging every day, the latest statistics showed over 300,000 diagnoses of major depression in Hong Kong, with symptoms continuously growing in the young. Additionally, a recent survey found 60 percent of school children exhibiting symptoms of depression and another survey by Hong Kong Polytechnic University found 40 percent of students suffering from anxiety. The question is, why do statistics show higher levels of depression in the youth of Hong Kong, compared with other well-developed economies? So how can the budget address the obvious need? And where is the strategy to tackle this ticking time bomb?

The budget does outline autism rehabilitation services, and mentions an increase in therapists. But will these therapists be affordable? Has money been set aside for this? There is also a shortage of qualified psychiatrists and psychologists, with most patients not being able to afford such help. Is there a plan to bridge this gap?

Fortunately, the government recognizes the epidemic as it announced plans to tackle mental health issues in secondary schools by introducing stress relief programs. The budget proposes placing two social workers in each of more than 460 secondary schools. With the pressures of burdensome and questionable loads of homework, this seems to be a move in the right direction.

But I wonder if we could provide this service to primary school children as well, simultaneously reviewing the amount of their standard homework, with a view to freeing them up for more wholesome after-school activities, be it sports, hobbies and other personal interests which might help develop their individual potential, while adding more color, diversity and fun to their young lives.

The latest findings in the education sector attest to the educational and developmental value of play. Rote learning and more homework may cram more data into a young mind. But what good will it do if they lack the creativity, imagination and the ability to think outside the box to make the best use of what they already know. For that to happen, they need the time and space to cultivate them.

The budget also announced new welfare facilities for child day-care, special needs education and other care services are to be increased. However, it’s important to understand what these services are. I wonder if counseling services are on the agenda.

Shockingly, there are around 70 suicides among children a year. The services that must be introduced without further delay are suicide awareness programs in schools.

With the continuous pressures of school life, suicide in children has become a serious concern in Hong Kong. Are there budgets to place interventions in schools and train teachers on suicide prevention in children?

There is said to be a plan to set up centers for divorced families to allow family members to seek help more easily. I hope they are staffed by counselors with specialized training.

While there is a perceptible greater willingness among certain sectors of the community to talk about depression, mental health continues to be stigmatized in Chinese culture. My hope is that more respected public figures and government officials would help remedy this by talking openly about mental illness as a treatable condition and not a family disgrace.

While there are also budgets in place to create and improve residential care services for the elderly, with the hiring of more social workers and physiotherapists, where is the specific concern for their mental health? Depression in the elderly is a serious and, unfortunately, common public health concern. It’s also essential to provide services to take care of the psychological well-being of our elderly.

For instance, Alzheimer’s disease is a leading killer among senior citizens. In fact, its death toll is higher than breast and prostate cancer combined.  What campaigns of awareness of Alzheimer’s disease and types of dementia do we currently have in place?

The budget does outline autism rehabilitation services, and mentions an increase in therapists. But will these therapists be affordable? Has money been set aside for this? There is also a shortage of qualified psychiatrists and psychologists, with most patients not being able to afford such help. Is there a plan to bridge this gap?

The Hospital Authority said there were nearly 50,000 bookings for each psychiatrist in 2018. While “urgent” cases are seen within a week on Hong Kong Island, waiting times could be up to over a year for “stable” cases; In Kowloon, “stable” cases can take up to 131 weeks to be seen. I can’t help wondering if we can hire more psychiatrists and psychologists, how many suicides could we have prevented each year. And how the lives of our elderly, the mentally vulnerable and our emotionally disturbed young people could be improved.

We should have the political will to do the honorable and responsible thing now because we do have the budget for it! 

The author has done extensive professional work in educational, occupational and developmental neuropsychology. He has taught in various local institutes.


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