Instant messaging 'helpline' for Hong Kong teens in crisis

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 May, 2015, 6:28am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 May, 2015, 11:52am

Education today is concerned with "whole-person development", and positive psychology, with its emphasis on "wellness", is an element of modern education frameworks. So, too, for the KELY Support Group, which has been providing Hong Kong youth and families with drug and alcohol abuse prevention and intervention programmes for 23 years, through direct services and in partnership with schools.

Sky Siu, acting executive director, explains: "KELY cares about how drug- and alcohol-related issues affect the development of young people in Hong Kong and so our programmes and services are designed to tackle the root causes of potential drug and alcohol abuse. These include low self-esteem, depression, boredom, and peer pressure.

"Our programmes and services provide a holistic, positive approach including elements of peer support, mentorship and leadership development to build young people's core competence and resilience as they face various challenges in their teen years."

Two recent initiatives demonstrate the practical application of aspects of whole-person development and wellness theory. Part of the wellness ethos is a focus on the transcendent, such as cultivating an appreciation of beauty and excellence. KELY's fashion-mentoring programme "Seeing the Possibilities", undertaken last year at Sir Ellis Kadoorie School, incorporates this focus alongside employment-skills development as part of a long-term capacity-building programme.

Lacking employment opportunities and self-awareness, unemployed youth are more likely to turn to drugs as an escape from depression, boredom or anxiety. Victoria Wong, communications and development coordinator at KELY, says: "As a way of broadening the vision of our youth, Seeing the Possibilities provides a way for local Chinese-speaking and ethnic minority youth to work with mentors within their own communities as a means to develop life goals through fashion, arts and event-planning training. By equipping students with such skills, this programme aims to motivate youth to set goals that are most suited to their needs and utilise these learned assets as the foundation to prepare for a bright future."

The mentorship programme concluded with a fashion show last December, judged by local and international fashion experts.

Just as wellness programming involves self-expression and creativity, it also stresses the development of resilience, temperance and personal leadership. The recently launched Talk2Me IM (instant messaging) "helpline" is another strategy that the KELY Support Group has developed to assist students in overcoming difficulties and helping them find their way through difficult situations or feelings of ennui.

The programme structure and objectives were designed by KELY and implemented by Susan Hargreaves, who is still involved as a volunteer. Hargreaves, a former teacher with a graduate diploma in counselling from the Australian College of Applied Psychology, spends much of her time as welcome committee and community-building chair of the Canadian International School of Hong Kong Parents' Association.

We wish to have more young people know about our service, and are partnering with as many local and international schools across Hong Kong, beginning with those we work with, to get the message of support out there
Sky Siu, KELY Support Group acting executive director

After her own children came home from school one day talking about a KELY Support Group outreach presentation, Hargreaves started to follow them on Twitter.

"I was interested in the work of the KELY Support Group, who stress 'harm reduction' in their work with youth and substance usage … abstinence is not viable," she says. "Sadly, it is not the culture; [the young people's] friends are more important than their parents. So the best thing is to educate them. The KELY Support Group is a godsend. I think they do an amazing job with kids, particularly with respect to drug and alcohol use."

"We were fortunate to meet Susan Hargreaves as a proactive counsellor and her expertise and experience in counselling support in helping us launch the Talk2Me IM service was invaluable," explains Siu. "The people who are helping us manage the service are dedicated volunteers who are all professional counsellors and clinical psychologists experienced in working with youth and trained by KELY using techniques specific to text-based counselling. The service was developed out of an ongoing realisation that young people today are seeking help less and less and becoming even less communicative due to fear of rejection or judgment from family and friends. Research shows us that young people in Hong Kong, in comparison to other Asian countries, rank as the third-saddest population."

KELY tries to alleviate this trend and encourage young people to seek help using a person-centred (non-directive) approach and easily accessible technology. The bilingual service operates on Saturdays, but the aim is to eventually provide round-the-clock support.

"We wish to have more young people know about our service, and are partnering with as many local and international schools across Hong Kong, beginning with those we work with, to get the message of support out there."

The service adopts a client-centred approach. "We are not there to offer advice, but rather to listen. We can't offer a full counselling service because this is WhatsApp. We don't see the emotional cues, as we can't see the person, but we can 'be there'," says Hargreaves.

An advantage of the Talk2Me IM platform is that it provides the anonymity young people today are used to. "They can be sitting with their family and engaging the service at the same time. If they are out with friends but are feeling vulnerable, they can access the service. No one needs to know," says Hargeaves.

The biggest challenge for the group is getting the message out to all youth communities. "We hope to be the bridge to enable young people and parents to open up and participate in more tough conversations among families," says Siu.

The Talk2Me IM team can be reached on 6174 4267 (English) and 6174 4395 (Cantonese). Service is available Saturdays: 10am-5pm, 6pm-midnight