Candidates dodged mental health issue
In a generally uneventful campaign for last Sunday's district council elections, perhaps the biggest non-event was a survey to flush out candidates' views on having a mental health centre in their district. Only 98 of more than 850 candidates responded. The question, posed by the Alliance for Advocating Mental Health Policy, was of district and wider public interest. In a major public health initiative, the government proposed in 2009 to set up district-based integrated community centres for mental health across the territory. So far, only nine centres have been established in the 18 districts, due largely to opposition from local interests and lobbying of district councillors.
Almost all the candidates who did respond agreed community support was important to mental patients and that there should be a mental health centre in each of the 18 districts. It suggests that many of those who did not respond feared that expressing such views could cost them some votes.
As we move towards universal suffrage and more meaningful participation in self-government, political hopefuls are going to have to get used to declaring their position on hot-button issues. Refusal to answer, or sitting on the fence, is not an endearing trait in someone who is asking people to put their trust in him or her. In this respect the major parties disappointed, with only 19 responses from Democratic Party candidates and none from those representing the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Progress and Betterment of Hong Kong.
District mental health centres are, of course, a 'nimby' - or not in my backyard - issue. The government has confronted it in line with a worldwide trend away from institutionalising patients and towards making more use of community and family resources. Given that regular increases in government financial support and resources have not kept up with an alarming rise in the number of mental patients, voters are entitled to expect candidates to come up with reasoned arguments and their own alternatives if they do not like the government's approach.