Mentally ill need treatment, but also our understanding

Dustin Shum backs efforts to counter their negative public image

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 October, 2014, 2:06pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 October, 2014, 5:28am

At home one afternoon, I heard a knock on my door. It was a police officer on patrol. He asked if I could be a "witness" in a case of "trespassing" and then led me to the flat next door. A woman was inside. Feeling puzzled, I watched the officer walk round the flat, then tell the woman: "Don't worry, I've kicked them out!"

There was no one else in the flat, of course. In the end, the officer called an ambulance, and the woman was taken to hospital. The officer contacted her husband and handed me the phone. The husband apologised for causing me trouble. I never asked if his wife was mentally unwell. There was no need.

Seven years ago, the Society for Community Organisation (Soco) and I collaborated on a book and an exhibition of photographs of 14 recovering psychiatric patients. Happily, the project received some public attention. It also inspired the launch of a programme that arranges for volunteers to regularly visit patients to offer friendship and mental support.

But just as I was feeling pleased about the impact of my work, I read media report after report of tragedies involving the mentally ill. The negative public perception of these patients appears to be becoming entrenched. We seem to be back where we started.

As the wealth gap grows and the pressure of making ends meet becomes worse in Hong Kong, more people seem to be succumbing to mental stress. According to Hospital Authority figures, some 200,000 Hongkongers are receiving psychiatric treatment and/or related support services in the public health system. In total, an estimated 1 million to 1.7 million Hongkongers suffer from some kind of neurotic disorder, including depression.

Clearly, people suffering such distress are no longer on the margins of society; they're part of us. The officer's knock on my door told me this much.

There are shortfalls in our provision for mental health care. In 2012, the Hospital Authority employed only 334 doctors in its psychiatric departments. Most patients have to wait several months to see a doctor. Psychiatric care nurses, clinical psychologists and medical social workers are also in short supply.

Over the past 10 years, Soco has tried to strengthen the provision of community services and help the government plug the gaps in its mental health policy. It has also pushed to have some recovering psychiatric patients join the government's Review Committee on Mental Health, so they can have a voice in shaping the policies that affect them.

But research and advocacy alone are not enough. We must also dismantle the barriers that prevent human connection. We can fight for better drugs and more community centres. But what good are these if society still regards these people as outcasts?

The work of promoting awareness and understanding is not a one-off effort. Thus, this year, Soco and I have collaborated on another project on people with psychiatric illnesses, in the hope that their challenges will not be forgotten. The book and exhibition offer no startling new perspective on mental health care. But in them, some recovering patients share their stories, so that we may try to understand a little their hopes and fears.

There can be no acceptance without understanding, and without acceptance and empathy, we will fail to reach out to the mentally fragile among us, no matter how sound the rehabilitation policies, how effective the drugs, and how good the support services.

Dustin Shum is a photographer and curator. "Life and times: A photo exhibition of people with mental illness" will be on show at the SoCO269 gallery from October 24 to December 21