Reduce stigma for mental health patients in Hong Kong to aid their recovery

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 November, 2015, 10:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 November, 2015, 10:00am

Increasing efforts are being made worldwide to promote public awareness and acceptance of various kinds of mental disorders or illnesses.

Research indicates that, over the last decade, people in the United States and Europe have shown more understanding and acceptance of mental illness and its treatment. However, in Hong Kong and other Asian and developing economies, social stigma towards mental illness remains a concern. People with mental illness or who are seeking psychiatric treatment are often viewed as dangerous, violent and unpredictable.

This may be due to inadequate mental health literacy, and traditional beliefs attributing the deviant behaviour to the poor moral standards of people with mental illness and/or their families. These blind spots remain a major barrier to the establishment and delivery of mental health services to facilitate patients' recovery and reintegration into society.

To reduce this social stigma, the Hong Kong government allocated HK$135 million in 2010 to set up an integrative community network for people with mental illness. A series of public education programmes have been organised to promote mental well-being and the understanding of mental illness. Nevertheless, very few of these initiatives have been evaluated on their effectiveness in reducing social stigma.

As most research focuses on the public's attitudes towards mental illness, it is equally important to know how people with mental illness view themselves or this stigmatisation. One survey of about 300 outpatients with mental illness (and their families) in Hong Kong reported a moderate level of self-perceived stigma. The patients also indicated high levels of affirmative responses to maintaining secrecy about their mental illness or withdrawing from social situations.

Interestingly, the study also revealed that half of the 76 surveyed health professionals held negative and stereotyped views on the effect of patients' behaviour to public safety. The findings support the view that patients' perceived discrimination would affect not only their mental state but also their families' involvement in care-giving.

It is very likely that both public and self-perceived stigmatisation would increase chances for psychiatric relapse and readmission into hospitals, as well as hindering their social life, including seeking employment.

The government should provide more resources to develop programmes to reduce stigma for people with mental illnesses, in line with the global movement for community-based care for mental health.

Professor Chien Wai Tong, associate head (research), School of Nursing, Hong Kong Polytechnic University