A vandalised light at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University campus, the venue of a bitter stand-off between protesters and police officers in November last year. Politicians constantly speak of the need for Hong Kong to heal, but little is being done to address the problems. Photo: K. Y. Cheng
by Brian Y. S. Wong
by Brian Y. S. Wong

Hong Kong must heal what the protest crisis has torn apart, not just relationships but also our minds

  • Hong Kong’s overstretched public health system is being put to the test by a growing number of people showing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder
  • More resources, creative ideas and a willingness to respect differences are needed to overcome this mental health crisis

Hong Kong is in the midst of a mental health crisis. There seems no escape from the trauma, anxiety and pain induced by witnessing visceral images of violence and altercations between civilians, the police force and protesters.

Almost one in three Hong Kong adults have exhibited symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder during the prolonged civil unrest in the city, according to a study published in The Lancet.

In their most formative years, our younger generation’s lives are filled with both fear and mistrust – fear of being alienated for their political beliefs and values; mistrust in governmental institutions and the disciplined services.

Politicians constantly speak of the need for Hong Kong to heal, but little is being done to address the problems – ranging from psychological disorders such as depression and mass anxiety to a breakdown in family and community relations. As someone who has been working with non-governmental organisations on identifying prospective solutions, I have a few suggestions.

Firstly, we should step up the provision of therapy and rehabilitation services to all youths, regardless of their political stance. Our mental health services are under-resourced and overstretched – in 2016, the longest waiting time for mental health treatment, in Hong Kong West, stood at over three years, according to Hospital Authority estimates.

The government should accelerate its efforts to encourage private-public cooperation in psychiatric care. At the same time, it should substantially increase budget and administrative support for frontline social workers and counsellors – even those who are not employed in the public sector.

More importantly, it should rethink its current approach to budgetary allocation towards the social service sector, where reckless deregulation has enabled administrators at the top of social service agencies to be paid disproportionately more than overworked and underpaid social workers.

Mental health drive after study reveals scale of depression in Hong Kong

Secondly, working adults also need more attention. The administration should consider workplace schemes to support workers with mental health challenges.

One possible programme is to help de-stigmatise mental health issues at the workplace and foster a climate where psychological problems can be discussed openly and freely. Another way is to give employers more resources to support counselling for their employees.

In industries that are particularly high-risk – such as journalism, public health, the disciplined services, education, and even the retail and tourism industries – government efforts are clearly inadequate. Civil society groups, among others, should also step up to support an environment where it is not taboo to speak of mental health struggles. It is imperative that we combat the misconception that mental disorder equates to incompetence and inadequacy.

Thirdly, mental health begins at home. I’ve witnessed first-hand how relationships between friends and relatives can deteriorate as a result of political differences. The acrimony and rage are not only polarising, but also impede mental health recovery.

Professional mediators can play a key role in mending these interpersonal ties, but their work alone is inadequate. As a society, we must reflect on how we treat and engage with people who have different viewpoints and perspectives from our own.

A call to respect people’s views is not a defence of relativism, or “anything goes”. Rather, we should come to recognise that baselines such as respect and tolerance of differences ought to extend across the political aisle. Dehumanising language such as “cockroaches” or “dogs”, or speech bent on inciting violence, could not possibly pave the way to a kinder, gentler polity.

Fourthly, politicians from all camps must recognise that only a reconciliation-centred approach could enable our city to recover and flourish again. Reconciliation does not necessarily imply an unconditional pardon or offering an amnesty, but elements of these approaches should certainly feature heavily in our city’s post-conflict reconstruction.

Policymakers should consider three factors when evaluating the different approaches to transitional justice: first, to what extent does the approach achieve the rehabilitation of “wrongdoers”; second, does the approach hinder or advance the objectives of uncovering the truth and encouraging public catharsis; and third, the case for retributive punishment must be weighed against considerations over future political stability and cohesion. An amnesty is not a panacea, but we should at least seriously consider it.

Amnesty and pardon scheme must be part of political solution for Hong Kong

Finally, talk of reconciliation and healing is vacuous unless all parties involved in the unrest over the past six months take a step back to reflect on their errors and inadequacies.

The pro-establishment camp should acknowledge and apologise for how its decisions have brought Hong Kong-mainland relations to a low point and dragged the city into an unprecedented crisis.

Likewise, some factions in the pro-democracy protest movement should also reflect on how their violence and extremist rhetoric targeting mainland China strikes at the principle of “one country, two systems”.

If our city is to heal, we must strive collectively towards a mutual understanding of the unrest. Only then can we seek to move on, through forgiving but not forgetting.

This is a city that we – through birth or experience – love deeply. Hong Kong deserves better – not just from the government, but also from all Hongkongers. The year 2020 has started – let us make it one in which our home can heal. Only then will there be hope.

Brian YS Wong is an MPhil (political theory) candidate at Wolfson College, Oxford and current Rhodes Scholar-elect for Hong Kong in 2020