Time to reach out to people on edge

Prevention involves breaking down barriers, and getting people's expectations right

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 January, 2013, 5:07am

Barriers, boundaries and beyond - that was the theme of the 5th Asia-Pacific conference on suicide prevention held in Chennai, southeastern India, which I attended.

The focus was on the barriers experienced by the mentally unwell when they try to seek help.

Most services for mentally ill and depressed people, even in developed countries let alone developing nations, are fragmented and highly compartmentalised. In order to make a difference, we need to remove these barriers and shift professional boundaries to become more inclusive, reaching out to those in need.

The World Health Organisation estimates that about one million people commit suicide every year, which represents a global mortality rate of one death every 40 seconds. For every person who ends his or her life, at least 10 more have tried to do so.

In Hong Kong, about 1,000 people commit suicide each year, with a rate of 13.6 per 100,000. This is slightly below the world average (14.5 per 100,000) but is higher than Australia (12), the US (11) and Britain (nine).

A recent survey indicated that about 15 per cent of adults in Hong Kong displayed symptoms of mental illness that might require attention. However, there is a terrible stigma attached to mental illness here; the mindset that seeking professional help is a sign of weakness has to be changed.

I also visited Kerala, the southernmost state of India that is acclaimed for its public health care. WHO says: "Kerala is the model for developing countries, for low-cost but highly effective health care."

Yet, Kerala has the highest suicide rate in India: 27 per 100,000 people, compared with 14 per 100,000 for the whole country. Research suggests a mismatch in people's expectations is partly responsible for the high rate. People who get disappointed in life may resort to alcoholism and drug addiction.

Managing one's expectations seems to be important in maintaining mental well-being. Indeed, unrealistic hopes and goals could create disappointment and pain.

India is a very populous country and is expected to have more people than China by 2020. More work needs to be done to improve the people's mental health. As the WHO says, there's no health without mental health.

Back home, the government may be under fire, but I have learned to be more appreciative of what Hongkongers enjoy: clean water, safe roads, free schooling, and excellent medical and health services.

Lots of people are working behind the scenes to make our society tick. However, we cannot take any of this for granted, especially when many people are left living in miserable conditions.

Paul Yip Siu-fai is a professor of social work and social administration at the University of Hong Kong