Biased minds

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 December, 2011, 12:00am


The lack of response by the vast majority of district council election candidates to the Alliance for Advocating Mental Health Policy's survey on local mental health facilities is shocking. Out of the 915 candidates who ran for elections last month, there were only 98 respondents, or just under 11per cent. Mental health is an important aspect of civic health and a lack of commitment to the former represents serious problems for the latter.

Although 1per cent of Hong Kong residents receive mental health support, it is estimated that around 10per cent of the population may suffer from psychological problems. Many people don't realise they have a disorder that can be treated, but many more don't seek treatment due to the stigma attached to mental illness. This explains the low level of response to the survey, too.

An unrealistic understanding of mental health that draws inspiration from poorly researched crime thrillers, stereotypes and ignorant politicians is unfortunately prevalent. It views patients as potential homicidal maniacs. It is a view that presumes the rarity and denies the prevalence of these issues.

This misunderstanding in turn perpetuates the stigmatisation of mental illness - with one Tuen Mun district councillor even going so far as to oppose plans for a mental health centre in his area. This is disgusting because it is reasonable to assume that the councillor would not have responded in the same way had the plan been for a general medical practice or even a centre for cancer patients.

People who suffer from mental illness do not deserve to be treated as social pariahs. The vast majority of mental health ailments are very treatable with the help of counselling, medication and hard work on the part of the patient.

The stigma needs to be undermined - crucially, so that the missing 9per cent of the population (or some 630,000) are able to seek the help they need and can benefit from, without the fear of criticism and stigmatisation. But it is also because this can improve our understanding of mental well-being in general.

Hong Kong, much like any international city with a fast-paced lifestyle, can also be an incredibly difficult place to live in. Exceptionally high expectations of parents, peers and bosses combined with an extremely competitive education system and job market provide fertile ground for potentially unhealthy attitudes to success, work and self-esteem.

In comparison to other societies, Hong Kong has a relatively high suicide rate. However, just as elsewhere, men in Hong Kong are more likely to kill themselves; they are also less likely to ask for help when experiencing emotional problems. The Pilot Project on Child Fatality Review, published this year, also highlighted concern over the number of child suicides in Hong Kong.

Silence on the issue of local mental health facilities by the vast majority of candidates who ran for the district council elections is worrying. It suggests that the 70,000 or so people who face mental health difficulties do not have a valid problem. It implies that an above-average rate in child suicides is not something worth engaging with. It means mental health and well-being - something that affects each and every one of us - is not something worth taking a stand for.

Rachel Tsang is a PhD candidate and has taught political theory at the London School of Economics