Hong Kong academics raise alarm as study reveals 1 in 20 suffer severe distress

Around 40 per cent of people cannot identify subtle symptoms of common mental health problems

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 September, 2016, 8:49pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 September, 2016, 10:23pm

At least 1 in 20 Hongkongers experienced severe psychological distress in the past month, according to a government-commissioned poll of more than 2,000 people.

The survey also showed that around 40 per cent were unable to identify subtle symptoms of common mental health problems.

Researchers found that 5.5 per cent of the 2,015 respondents reported that they had constantly felt nervous, hopeless and worthless over the previous month.

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“It definitely [is an issue of concern],” Professor Linda Lam Chiu-wa, chairwoman of the department of psychiatry at Chinese University of Hong Kong, said on Tuesday.

“This group has a higher risk of self-harm, relationship problems, and substance abuse.”

The findings also revealed that those who had lower educational attainment, had never married and were on lower incomes were more likely to suffer severe psychological distress.

Lam said the distress levels were stable compared with a similar study a decade ago and that the results were average compared with other countries.

She said the distress would affect sufferers’ functioning at work and their physical health.

The survey was conducted last November and December using an international scale designed to measure psychological distress levels. Respondents aged from 12 to 75 were asked six questions over the telephone.

Lam pointed out that at least a third were not able to identify subtle symptoms in common mental health problems, which was less than ideal.

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In one scenario, respondents were asked to identify whether a 14-year-old boy who experienced symptoms such as an increased heart rate, hand tremors and blushing when talking in front of the teacher and classmates, was suffering an anxiety disorder.

At least 35.8 per cent answered, incorrectly, that it was a normal condition.

“Most people think it’s ordinary to have stress, but such symptoms may escape their attention for a disorder that is in fact highly treatable,” Lam said.

Dr Ivan Mak Wing-chit, a specialist in psychiatry who was not involved in the study, said it was common for people to downplay stress levels and urged those with severe psychological distress to seek professional help as soon as possible.

If [their problems] aren’t handled appropriately in time, it could become serious
Dr Ivan Mak Wing-chit

“Some Hongkongers still attach a stigma to seeing a psychologist or psychiatrist. But it’s really the same as seeing a doctor if you have a cold or the flu,” Mak said.

“If [their problems] aren’t handled appropriately in time, it could become serious and they could have a higher risk of developing emotional problems and illnesses.”

Dr Phyllis Chan Kwok-ling, a consultant psychiatrist at Queen Mary Hospital, cautioned that the study was only on subjective stress levels and did not mean respondents had mental illnesses.

The survey, commissioned by the Department of Health as a baseline study, is part of a three-year government campaign to raise awareness on mental health issues.