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Monday, July 6, 2015, 09:16

'Anxious' HK needs an effective mental health body

By Wang Shengwei

Recently the Hong Kong Mental Morbidity Survey was published, the first city-wide study commissioned by the Food and Health Bureau to assess our mental health. The survey estimated that 13.3 percent of the population, or almost one in seven, suffered from anxiety, depression or other common mood disorders. It is even more astonishing to know that among the 900 Hong Kong people interviewed initially by the research team, 85 percent said that they suffered from insomnia or narcolepsy — among them 60 'Anxious' HK needs an effective mental health body percent of adults had insomnia which lasted for two years or more. Many respondents also had symptoms of depression, and even suicidal tendencies.

The survey was completed by a team comprised of academics and psychiatrists from the Department of Psychiatry of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the University of Hong Kong and Mental Health Service Units of the Hospital Authority (HA). The team interviewed a representative sample of 5,719 men and women aged 16 to 75 between 2010 and 2013. The HA statistics show that the number of people seeking treatment at public psychiatric clinics surged and almost doubled from 111,806 in 2004 to 208,100 in 2014. However, only 26 percent sought professional help. Even so, there was still a wide gap between the demand and supply of services due to a shortage of mental health professionals. There were only 4.6 doctors serving every 100,000 people in the public sector, while the median rate was 8.59 in high income countries, according to a World Health Organization survey. This boiled down to a government psychiatrist spending only about 12 minutes with each patient on average for each treatment.

These are actually common mental health problems which Hong Kong shares with the most developed cities globally, possibly because these societies are more competitive, complex and success-driven. Worldwide, more than one in three people in most countries report sufficient criteria for at least one type of disorder (depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, frequent mental distress, Alzheimer’s disease and so on) at some point in their life. Anxiety or fear can interfere with normal functioning and can become a specific phobia, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, or worse. Specifically, schizophrenia affects a person’s perceptions or sense of reality; patients can have delusions or hallucinations.

Mental illness is a clear threat to human health and quality of life, since the debilitating condition adversely affects a person’s quality of sleep, eating habits, general health and work performance, while burdening family members. It is also a great economic burden on society, since the illnesses are largely chronic, requiring long-term treatment, affect work attendance and often take people permanently out of the workforce. Many of them rely on medication for the rest of their lives without being able to overcome the condition by themselves.

In ancient times, before people understood mental illnesses, patients were treated like wild animals, chained and locked up in jails or private madhouses. Stigma and discrimination, which may still persist today, can add to the suffering and disability associated with sufferers of mental disorders and their family members.

We owe our thanks to many mental health care workers and researchers for making enormous strides in discovering that mental disorders may be due to some chemical imbalance in the brain. How the imbalance occurs in some people, but not in others, and how to rebalance it, remain crucial topics in psychopathology. Simply put, the symptoms can be related to a person’s emotions and ability to cope with life stresses. Certain people have a pre-existing vulnerability which can be activated by stressful life events. This includes pressure from parents, spouses, examinations, job seeking, work, unrequited love, trauma, lack of self-esteem, and so on. Parenting clearly affects a child’s mental health, and evidence suggests that helping parents is effective in addressing their children’s mental health needs. Sometimes the symptoms may be resolved by changing a person’s lifestyle or environment, along with continued love and care.

The author is an independent scholar and freelance writer. She is also the founder and president of the China-US Friendship Exchange, Inc.

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