Lessons to learn from freed mental patient's murder-suicide

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 January, 2013, 1:57am

Once more, there has been a tragedy in Hong Kong involving a mentally ill patient and, again, questions are being raised as to whether it could have been prevented. A Tai Koo Shing housewife who had twice threatened to commit suicide strangled her 10-year-old son on Tuesday before hanging herself. Four days earlier, she had been discharged from Eastern Hospital on the insistence of relatives and against the advice of doctors. But determining whether lives could have been saved is not as simple as finding fault. Complex factors are at play when it comes to mental disorders.

The woman's family life was in turmoil and social welfare workers were well aware of her circumstances. She had been in hospital receiving treatment for weeks after a suicide attempt. Too late we know that she should not have been discharged, and health authorities have to investigate whether assessments and procedures were as they should have been. While treatment of mental disorders can be difficult, the best effort has to be made to prevent a similar occurrence.

This tragedy is, after all, just the latest in a string in recent years. A number have related directly to lapses in our over-stretched public mental-health system. But society is also un-accepting of mental illness and sufferers are stigmatised. Families can be unwilling to concede that loved ones are afflicted, or little understand symptoms and treatment.

At the heart of a better life for sufferers is education, coupled with a well-rounded regime of treatment and care. That involves a family being aware of the challenges of the particular mental condition and knowledgeable about what to do; doctors who are well trained, have the time to assess requirements and are able to prescribe effective medication; properly managed treatment facilities; and regular check-ups and monitoring by social workers. With as many as a quarter of residents likely to experience a mental illness at some time in their lives, there is every reason to try to attain this ideal. There is a great deal yet to be done, as the death of the woman and her son proves.