China Daily (Hong Kong)
Tackling mental health issues needs great effort
As large corporations and global banks such as Citigroup redouble their efforts to encourage employees to return to office life, many Hong Kong residents are rethinking their work-life balance after working from home for so long.
And in a city that has recently been found to have the highest average work hours per week, it is no wonder that many residents are feeling overwhelmed and stressed.
According to a recent survey, the average resident works over 44 hours per week, and a third work more than 48 hours per week.
Affordable housing remains scarce in Hong Kong, and the number of households continues to grow. The average housing space in a public housing estate flat is only 13.5 square meters per person, which is slightly bigger than a parking space.
And if we combine these factors with other stressors, such as the 2019 protests, a stagnant economy, high unemployment rate, emigration, and the pandemic, we may well be at a breaking point.
While the national security legislation has brought order back to our streets, there is more work to be done. The lone-wolf attack that happened less than three months ago is symptomatic of the societal ills that continue to linger in our city.
On July 1 — the anniversary of the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region — 50-year-old Leung Kin-fai stabbed a police officer in Causeway Bay. The assailant, who was later found to have been radicalized by anti-government hate speeches, turned the knife on himself and died. In the same month, seven attackers from the 2019 Yuen Long station attack were finally sentenced to prison terms, with sentences ranging from three and a half to seven years.
Two years on, these scars have yet to heal, with key figures in the “7.21 incident” still being remanded, awaiting trial. Such news brings back memories that add to the stress that Hong Kong people have to deal with.
In past columns, I wrote of the inevitable fragmentation and decline of radicalized groups and their members.
In its early stages, radical individuals are invigorated by public support. And more often than not, they do not incite violence. But once the dust settles, these groups tend to break off into smaller sects. This is when street violence and vandalism begins. We are at this stage now, and these radical — and dangerous — individuals are still living among us.
While we have to deal with the stress of the aftermath of the 2019 riots, we must also remain vigilant of such individuals that have not been deradicalized after they have been released from a prison cell.
At least 10,000 protesters have been arrested for various offenses so far. Many have had their day in court and many more are still awaiting trial. Nearly half of those arrested are students who, by some measure, still have their whole lives ahead of them. If they do end up in prison, then we must look beyond their incarceration and consider how best to deradicalize and rehabilitate them. Their situations also add mental strain to their families. As a means of alleviating concerns of further radicalization in prison, dedicated deradicalization programs must also be considered.
While deradicalization programs are totally new to Hong Kong as a science and a practice, programs in Australian prisons have shown great promise. While specific methods vary between these programs, the overarching intent is to redirect participants into more productive, civil and rational interests.
These interests include various forms of vocational and educational training, art and physical activities. Counseling is also included in these programs to address any psychological, social, political or theological issues that are behind a participant’s radical inclinations.
As for the rest of the population who strive to overcome the challenges of the pandemic, what of their physical and mental health in a post-pandemic world?
For one thing, the pressures of preventative restrictions (e.g., mask-wearing and social distancing) are being felt across the board. Some Hong Kong residents continue to observe said measures, while others do not. And what about those who have been quarantined multiple times, or lost their contacts for one reason or another with the outside world as a result of the pandemic?
We must start to deliberate and consider the mental health pressures of “resocializing” with not just the outside world, but even with family and friends.
As an eye doctor, I have noticed a rise in shortsightedness among many children. A study by the Chinese University of Hong Kong revealed that shortsightedness has risen by 2.5 times among Hong Kong students. This has been linked to a notably more screen time and less time spent outdoors. Outdoor activities have been proved to be a most effective way to slow down the progress of shortsightedness. We recommend 1.5 hours outdoor activities every day.
Severe shortsightedness can put children at risk of developing complications such as irreversibly impaired eyesight later in life, glaucoma, and other retinal diseases.
The weight of emigration has also been felt by Hong Kong residents, as some have been stressed by loved ones who have moved abruptly overseas. Generational ties have been torn and friendships lost.
As an indication of the worsening mental health situation, suicide rates now are the highest in the past 47 years among those aged 60 and over. Some of these people are elderly residents whose families have emigrated overseas.
These are not easy questions to answer, and these are even harder problems to solve. Changes need to start from the bottom up. To use what is perhaps a trite analogy: You do not simply tend to a wound, both physical and mental, covering it with a plaster. You need to tend to it to ensure it heals properly. Without proper care, a wound will fester into something far worse.