NGO Focus: Why Mind Hong Kong believes discussing psychological wellbeing is essential

Hong Kong ranked the fifth ‘most stressed’ population in the 2018 Cigna 360 Well-Being Survey (which covered 23 countries and territories) and, according to the Hospital Authority, the number of residents seeking treatment for mental problems rose 30 per cent, from 20,000 in 2011 to around 30,000 in 2016.

That’s why Mind Hong Kong believes that talking about psychological wellbeing is essential. Launched in 2017 under the umbrella of the Patient Care Foundation – a healthcare charity established by obstetrician-gynecologist Dr Lucy Lord and Eric Chen, Department of Psychiatry head at University of Hong Kong – Mind Hong Kong aims to destigmatise mental health in the city.

The organisation approaches the problem from all angles: They provide training and support, raise awareness through online and offline campaigns, and provide a hub of informative online content. 

“What we’ve seen in Hong Kong is that there’s a big lack of awareness around mental health problems. A lot of people are suffering and struggling without the support they need,” says Dr Hannah Reidy, the CEO of Mind Hong Kong.

“People often recognise they’re in a bad mood or show physical manifestations of stress – like stomach pains or sleeplessness – but instead of addressing the underlying psychological issues behind it, they try to treat their surface-level symptoms. This can sometimes result in unhelpful coping strategies, such as avoidance or self-medication.”

The Mind HK team.

Setting a new standard

The available support for those experiencing mental health problems in Hong Kong is far from international standards. There are currently 355 psychiatrists employed by the Hospital Authority and roughly 160 private practitioners. That’s 6.9 psychiatrists per 100,000 people, compared with 10.54 in the US and 14.68 in Canada, according to the World Health Organization.

Currently, there are three major avenues available for those seeking affordable mental support. These include an Integrated Community Centre for Mental Wellness in every district (which provides counselling and re-integration services to mentally ill patients), affordable public services via the Hospital Authority (HK$135 for initial visit; HK$80 per visit thereafter), and either free or low-cost services via NGOs.

“People can wait up to 2.5 years to see a psychiatrist in the government system, not to mention that only about 26 per cent of patients said they would actually seek help,” says Reidy.

Even if they recognise that they might need support, people are often afraid to come forward because there is a lot of shame around mental health problems in Hong Kong society.

“People think that if they are not socialising and having a great time constantly, it will change others’ perceptions of them,” adds Reidy. “There’s a real worry about admitting that you’re not doing so well and need help.” 

There’s a real worry about admitting that you’re not doing so well and need help.

Dr Hannah Reidy

To provide support, Mind Hong Kong created a database of free resources by gathering more than 2,000 pages of content from sister organisation Mind UK, translating it to Traditional Chinese, then supplementing with localised information. The resources cover everything from explaining bipolar disorders to schizophrenia, as well as debunking common misconceptions such as the difference between clinical depression and feeling depressed.

Mind Hong Kong has also taken its work offline by offering 12-hour courses that train parents, educators, patients and advocates in Mental Health First Aid. During these sessions, which span from single evenings to multi-day courses, participants learn how to manage mental health emergencies and identify symptoms of mental health issues, such as panic attacks, anxiety or even suicidal intentions.

The need for these classes, says Reidy, stems from Hongkongers’ reluctance to talk about mental health. Due to long-standing social taboos, many people do not have a working knowledge of mental health conditions and concerns. Often, they do not recognise serious symptoms or know how to support loved ones. 

Mind Hong Kong also launched a series of online campaigns in 2018, including #LetsTalk, which endeavours to start conversations about mental health and change public perception. Reidy hopes that by breaking the social stigma around mental health issues, more people feel comfortable to share and seek help.

 Dr Hannah Reidy and her team.

Starting young

While Mind Hong Kong works with people of all ages, the organisation is currently developing additional programmes for young people, who are particularly susceptible to stress and mental disorders. One in three young people between 6 and 24 years old suffers from stress, anxiety or depression, according to a 2018 survey by the Hong Kong Playground Association.

To support this vulnerable demographic, Mind Hong Kong teamed up with KELY Support Group – a local NGO that works with young adults with substance abuse issues – to launch the Coolminds campaign.

Launching this autumn, the three-year campaign equips young people with essential mental health skills and insights, so they can better recognise and manage their emotions. As part of the programme, Mind Hong Kong also offers mental health literacy training sessions for parents and teachers so they are better prepared to help youth.

Coolminds will also invite youth who had mental health issues to share their experiences with other high school students.

“Talking about these experiences in a safe and controlled environment is a surefire way to allow students to know that it is okay to talk about mental health issues and seek help,” says Reidy.

In line with the campaign launch, the organisation plans to introduce a dedicated website and app that provides targeted resources for students. In collaboration with local mental health specialists, the web platforms will provide strategies, insights and resources for teens who are facing high-pressure situations, such as exams and university applications.

 Attendees at a Mind HK Mental Health Literacy training session.

The big picture

Since launching Mind Hong Kong two years ago, Reidy says the organisation has witnessed an increased level of mental health acceptance and awareness in Hong Kong but there is still a long way to go, especially when it comes to the city’s collective attitude. 

Through its own research and surveys, Mind Hong Kong has found that roughly three out of four people in Hong Kong believe that mental health patients should be better integrated in the society. However, 40 per cent of respondents say they are not willing to live near people with mental health problems. In addition, 40 per cent of respondents believe the main causes of mental illnesses are a lack of self-discipline and willpower.

Hong Kong’s notoriously intense work culture and high cost of living further aggravate the issue. A UBS report in 2016 found that the city has the longest hours in the world – Hongkongers work an average of 50.1 hours per week, compared with 37.8 hours in Beijing and 30.8 hours in Paris.

It would be a dream for us to see more positive portrayals of mental health across Hong Kong.

Dr Hannah Reidy

“Hong Kong’s work culture is one of presenteeism, where people show up even if they are not productive at work. People feel pressured to stay at work until their boss goes home,” says Reidy. “Sometimes, there is a ‘pull’ factor to stay at work, as rent and living costs are sky-high here so accommodation is small, cramped and often shared with many other family members – which can be stressful in itself.”

The combination of high-pressure lifestyles, lack of awareness and cultural taboos has created a situation where mental health issues are common yet often go untreated. Looking ahead, Reidy hopes to see the government provide more adequate care across the board and calls upon health insurers to include mental healthcare in coverage packages. In Hong Kong, mental healthcare is rarely covered under most health insurance plans and sessions can cost anywhere from HK$1,300 to HK$5,000 per session for private care.

“It is important for all healthcare professionals to treat mental health problems with the same care and attention that they would physical health problems, in order to ensure their patients receive the support they deserve,” said Reidy. “And in terms of cultural acceptance, it would be a dream for us to see more positive portrayals of mental health across Hong Kong.”