Weight of protests too much to bear

| Farah Master 11 Jul 2019

Stress and trauma over the political turmoil surrounding Hong Kong's extradition bill has created an unprecedented mental health problem that the SAR is not equipped to deal with, medical professionals say.

Discussion of mental health can include a huge stigma, and younger people are particularly vulnerable because of the stresses of everyday life: exorbitant living costs, cramped housing, academic pressure and a gloomy view of the future.

On Tuesday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said the bill, which would allow people to be extradited to the mainland for trial, was "dead."

In the same remarks, she acknowledged there are entrenched social problems.

"I come to the conclusion that there are some fundamental deep-seated problems in Hong Kong society," Lam said.

"It could be economic problems, it could be livelihood issues, it could be political divisions in society.

"The first thing we should do is identify those fundamental issues and hopefully find some solutions to move forward."

Youths have been at the forefront of the biggest and most violent protests in decades, with police firing rubber bullets and tear gas in chaotic scenes that grabbed global headlines.

Anger and frustration over the extradition bill, and the government's handling of it, have pushed many to desperation.

The deaths of four young people have been linked to frustration with the legislation, while suicidal messages from at least three others have triggered emergency responses.

"It's hard to see the future if there is no solution," says Kayi Wong, a 23-year-old designer who attended the protest in Kowloon on Sunday.

"Our government should understand how we think."

Wong adds that she feels depressed reading about the deaths. Many people feared there would be more amid multiple societal problems, she adds, They include housing issues, family troubles and what she describes as an inability to communicate feelings effectively to each other.

Calls to support groups and local non-governmental organizations have surged, particularly after the storming of the legislative building, says Karman Leung, chief executive of one such group, Samaritans Hong Kong.

"The news repeats day after day," he says.

"Everybody is talking about it. It causes stress and people feel like they cannot get out of that environment."

Because of the stigma surrounding mental health and with a heated political issue at the root of their stress, people don't feel they can talk about it, says Zoe Fortune, chief executive of City Mental Health Alliance. "It's a double whammy and people don't know where to go for support."

Conflict between family members with different standpoints increases tension and further fractures society, according to volunteer counselling groups.

Some such organizations, including the Hong Kong Psychological Society, have started offering free counseling.

A person seeking treatment for mild depression at a public facility would have to wait more than a year to see a psychologist, says Jasmin Fong, a counseling psychologist for the Psychological Society.

A private 50-minute session with a psychologist costs between HK$800 and HK$3,000, making private treatment out of reach for many people.

Online groups using mobile applications such as Telegram have sprung up to prevent future deaths.

One chat assembled thousands of members to find a Facebook user who posted that he planned to kill himself.

Members split into teams at 40 spots around Admiralty, scene of some of the largest protests, and tried to get him to talk to trained social workers.

He was later found unharmed.

Unless issues are solved fundamentally, the mounting mental stress won't ease, warns Joe, a student who declines to give his last name because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The arrests of young people, including a 14-year-old, in connection with the attack on the legislative building have only added to the burden, he says.

"They are Hong Kong people - just like our family members," Joe says.

"Very serious things are happening, so it's hard to stay positive and optimistic."


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