Deborah Wan - President-elect, World Federation for Mental Health

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 October, 2011, 12:00am


Deborah Wan Lai-yau brims with pride as she is warmly greeted by friendly staff at a restaurant in Tsing Yi. This isn't a typical eatery - it is a social enterprise she helped set up and employs people who have recovered from mental illness.

'Look at them - you won't believe it. They function just like any other person,' says Wan, a veteran social worker who has been dedicated to the promotion of mental health for more than 30 years. 'Why should we treat them differently?'

Wan's journey started in 1975 when she volunteered with a halfway house in To Kwa Wan, which was run by New Life Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association.

'More than 10 people were crammed into a space of little more than 800 square feet. I said to myself, 'I must do something',' she says.

She became New Life's general secretary in 1981 and was later made its CEO, retiring two years ago. Building New Life from a group of 40 to an 800-strong organisation, serving more than 5,000 people a day by the time she left, while pioneering a host of initiatives along the way, Wan has played an instrumental role in providing much-needed support and guidance to the mentally ill and their carers.

With a strong sense of responsibility and a fighting spirit, Wan has conquered many challenges. One of the biggest obstacles she faced was in developing community psychiatric services during the 1980s, which involved persuading angry protesters unwilling to have halfway houses built in their neighbourhoods.

'There was a lot of misunderstanding about people who have recovered from mental illness. We had to do a lot to rid public prejudice,' Wan says.

Such work included rolling out public education initiatives, helping the government set up a mental health review tribunal to decide if a patient was fit to integrate into the community, and advocating for community elements in the government's rehabilitation programme plan of 1991.

Recruiting and retaining social workers also proved a challenge. 'Mental health is often the last choice for many social workers. It is hard to develop trust with clients and results of your work are not immediate. I spent a lot of time instilling in my staff the need to respect our service users and treat them as equals,' says Wan, now vice-chairwoman of the Hong Kong Joint Council for People with Disabilities and president-elect of the World Federation for Mental Health.

Under her leadership, New Life spearheaded 20 social enterprises in the 1990s and 2000s, ranging from restaurants and souvenir shops to cleaning service companies. In 1993, the group opened a vegetable stall in a market in Tuen Mun as part of a pilot project offering employment services to people recovered from mental illness. The venture became a prototype of social enterprises.

'Initially, people at the market wondered why we were there, but later told their customers to buy vegetables from us. We were happy to have won their hearts,' Wan says.

The social obligation to keep positions open was a major test, she says. 'You have to innovate and find ways to provide stability for the employees. For me, it is most rewarding to see they have become part of the community.'

Wan has been working to improve mental health care on the mainland since the late 1990s, stepping up her efforts since leaving New Life. 'Mental health patients on the mainland are treated in a way that is like Hong Kong during the 1970s - they are isolated, and security is the primary concern,' she says.

'The mainland doesn't have any experience in integrating recovered patients into the community, and so we have to show them how to do it. Rather than catching the fish for them, we need to teach them how to fish.'