My Take

The sorry state of mental health care in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 September, 2015, 1:29am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 September, 2015, 1:29am

We will never know what caused Chung Wai-sze to jump to her death with her 10-year-old son. The tragedy followed another one in which a father killed his two sons with rat poison and burned charcoal to commit suicide.

Could early outside interventions have saved them? Who knows? When parents are bent on killing themselves and their children, it is extremely difficult to stop them. Perhaps all we can do is to condemn such murderous acts so others who may be thinking of doing the same know they will get no sympathy from the public.

Police said the 38-year-old Chung had suffered from depression since the birth of her son and was receiving psychiatric treatment at a public hospital. This led to media speculation on whether her treatment was adequate. But regardless of this case, public health care for patients with mental illnesses since the handover in 1997 has been nothing short of a scandal.

There are under 200,000 such patients in the Hospital Authority (HA) system. According to an official assessment, the average queuing time for a first appointment with a psychiatrist jumped from three to seven weeks between 2000 and 2012.

Even after you have been inducted into the system, you may not see your psychiatrist again for months. And each meeting, according to Hong Kong College of Psychiatrists spokesman Dr Chan Lap-kei, could last for just minutes because of case overload. There are about 300 psychiatrists employed in public hospitals - 400 fewer than recommended by the World Heath Organisation for a city of this size. The college estimates that if the current manpower shortage persists, the problem will last for another two decades. Yet few efforts have been made to improve the situation because of budgetary control.

But this is only one part of the scandal. Another is the use of older drugs with bad side effects. While poor patients in theory may be exempt from paying for expensive newer drugs, they are made to jump through hoops to get subsidies from, say, the Samaritan Fund.

No wonder Chan says his colleagues often witness patients' worsening conditions.

The HA has been under a deliberate budget squeeze, but not because the government doesn't have money. The public should force the government to restore service quality to 2000 levels by 2020. Even that would still be a sad state of affairs.