City must do more for mentally ill to avoid more tragedies

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 August, 2012, 2:53am


Another tragedy involving a mental patient has occurred and once more, health professionals are wringing their hands over the inadequacies of treatment in Hong Kong. If only the woman had been better monitored, she would not have thrown her two-month-old baby daughter to her death from a high-rise building, they lament. After each incident, the government responds with pledges to improve services, but the problem is complex and cannot be resolved by quick fixes. Until there is a thorough review of publicly funded psychiatric health care in our city, the too-frequent fatalities and injuries will continue.

The woman this past week is a long-time sufferer of schizophrenia, a little-understood illness that requires dedicated and determined treatment. Our overstretched government mental health system is not well suited to handling those with the life-long affliction. Nor are psychiatric problems readily accepted by our society. Proper care involves a family aware of the challenges of the condition and educated about what to do; well-trained doctors who have the time to assess a patient's requirements and the ability to prescribe the most effective medication; regular check-ups and monitoring by social workers.

But schizophrenia is only one of a number of mental illnesses. The stresses of hectic and cramped Hong Kong make them increasingly prevalent. Although health authorities estimate that there are 200,000 people with severe disorders, little more than a quarter of a per cent of gross domestic product goes towards psychiatric resources - a fraction of what is allocated in other developed economies. As there had been warning signs about the woman and she had missed an appointment for a check-up, better community mental health care may have saved her baby's life. Families attuned to a patient's state of mind and able to discern an emergency situation is where good care begins. But if private treatment is unaffordable, the government has a crucial role to play. The tragedies will continue as long as there are inadequate public resources.