Published: 00:10, November 3, 2021 | Updated: 10:06, November 3, 2021
How can we protect our people’s mental health?
By Ho Lok-sang

Hong Kong’s suicide rate in 2020 dropped by 1 percentage point to 12.1 per 100,000, according to the University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention. 

Unfortunately, while the overall suicide rate has dropped, that of young people has shown a sharp increase in recent years. According to Professor Paul Yip Siu-fai, director of the Centre, while those below the age of 15 have always had a much lower suicide rate than that of the general population, their suicide rate has recently increased sharply and there has been a continuous increase in the suicide rate among schoolchildren in the past three or four years. 

What we saw in Hong Kong is not exclusive to the city. In the United States, according to Holly Hedegaard, an injury epidemiologist at the National Center for Health Statistics, although young people’s suicide rates are lower than for other age groups, “we’ve seen quite a bit of an increase in the suicide rates in recent years”. Hedegaard added, “For girls who are aged 10 to 14, their rates have increased about fourfold in the past 20 years. … Rates have also increased for boys and for young men but not to the same extent as for girls.”   

I want to repeat my plea for the Education Bureau to ensure that all teachers receive a good dose of life education. ... They should not only set a good example for children under their care, but also be ready to serve as life coaches

A US News story in February headlined, “As social media time rises, so does teen girls’ suicide risk”, stems from a decadelong longitudinal study. It found that girls are more vulnerable to the influence of social media because “young girls tend to focus on the same thing: relationships. Boys, not so much.” This was according to Sarah Coyne, associate director of the school of family life at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and author of the study. Her recommendation was to “delay the start of using social media until at least age 13. And then start with low levels that only moderately increase over time.” 

Whereas Coyne suggested delaying the use of social media till “at least age 13”, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Jamie Zelazny, warned that two hours a day is a key threshold beyond which youngsters were much more likely to report poor mental health outcomes like distress and suicidal tendencies. In the US, suicide is already the second-leading cause of death among individuals aged 10 to 24 years.  

South Korea has had the highest suicide rate among member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development for some time. Again, the suicide rates of young people there have risen sharply. A story in the New Straits Times in October 2020 said that the number of South Koreans who attempted suicide or intentionally injured themselves jumped from 4,947 in 2015 to 9,828 in 2019, with most of the 2019 cases involving those 9 to 24 years old. A report in in September 2020 said: “Cases of suicide among women in their late teens and 20s are of particular concern, with 1,924 deaths in this age group in the first half of (2020) —an increase of more than 7 percent.”    

This pattern of declining mental health among young people is now familiar, and has coincided with a rise in the popularity of social media. On the Chinese mainland, the government has now limited the time kids under 14 spend on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, to 40 minutes per day, and to access the app only between 6 am and 10 pm. To the delight of parents, the Chinese government has also limited video-game time for kids. Many parents had found themselves caught in the dilemma of either direct clashes with their teenage children or watching them fall victim to video-game addiction.   

Hong Kong’s suicide rate, at 12.1 per 100,000 last year, is relatively good compared to international figures. It is also the lowest since 1997, when it stood at the same level. It is sobering to see how the suicide rate had climbed from 12.1 in 1997 to 18.8 in 2003. It is no coincidence that this was also the same period for housing prices to have fallen by 66.7 percent from peak to trough. That is why we need to avoid actions that will lead to a housing market crash because that will be disastrous for many. That is why I had recommended, three weeks ago, that the government should focus only on providing basic housing to those who otherwise would have to live in inhumane, substandard homes, and let people take care of further improving their housing conditions on their own. Substandard homes are not only harmful to mental health, but they are also unsafe. Policies that reduce home prices drastically would create stress and may also drive people to depression and even suicide. 

Apart from this and besides regulating social media, however, I want to repeat my plea for the Education Bureau to ensure that all teachers receive a good dose of life education. Over the past few years, it has become clear that too many teachers do not know how to conduct their own lives. They should not only set a good example for children under their care, but also be ready to serve as life coaches. Leaving all behavioral and mental problems to the social worker is a signal of indifference, which is in itself harmful.

The author is director of Pan Sutong Shanghai-HK Economic Policy Research Institute, Lingnan University. 

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.