As mental health charity Mind HK prepares to celebrate five years in Hong Kong, it welcomes a new CEO, Dr Candice Powell. Born and educated in Hong Kong and from a working-class family, Powell is keen to increase access to therapies that have been proven to work and to localise treatments, in line with Mind HK’s 2022-2024 strategy, which outgoing CEO Dr Hannah Reidy released in January. It is something Powell has been working towards in her career; indeed, her life story leads up to it. So it is easy to understand why she was chosen for the job. As a child, her hard-working dad only got one day off a month and it was her mum to whom she turned for support. “She was calm and listened to me, helped me analyse things. My interest in deep conversation came from my mum. She put that seed in my heart, I like to communicate deeply,” says Powell. At secondary school, she was a perfectionist and put herself under a lot of pressure, feeling as if she had failed when she did not get 100 per cent. She experienced panic attacks, and that study stress continued at the University of Hong Kong, where she studied philosophy and psychology. ‘I thought, this is it, I’m dying’: how to deal with a panic attack “By that time, I was working like a zombie but highly functional. When I wasn’t working, I’d be ruminating and have irrational guilt and sadness,” says Powell. A relationship break-up at university led to depression and she took advantage of the therapy the university offered. “I was fortunate to get 20 sessions of free counselling. It was a lot of time to reflect on myself and the way I work, and I learned skills to handle my emotions when I was in a low mood,” she says. Her first job after graduation was as an assistant teacher in a special school for teenagers with moderate intellectual disabilities, autism and challenging behaviours. There, she witnessed first-hand the students’ and teachers’ high stress levels. “I realised emotional health is very important, not only for ourselves but also the way we work, especially for caring professionals, so I went into psychology,” says the 39-year-old. At the Chinese University of Hong Kong, she got her MA in trauma psychology (2007), MSSc in clinical psychology (2009) and doctorate in clinical psychology (2018) and in between studied a host of evidence-based therapies. We hope everyone facing mental health and mood issues will be able to get support Candice Powell, Mind HK CEO She is one of the pioneers of adapting transdiagnostic cognitive behavioural therapy – a form of therapy for patients with a range of anxiety and related emotional disorders – and of low-intensity psychological intervention, mindful parenting and online therapy in Hong Kong. From 2009, she was the officer-in-charge and clinical psychologist at New Life Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association. “The last two years have been very difficult for me because my father passed away. I was in my last job for 13 years; it seemed a good time to make a change in my life,” says Powell, adding she wanted to do more for society. Established in 2017 and guided by the British-trained Reidy, Mind HK has good reach in the expat community, and has reached into the Chinese community. Powell hopes to expand on the latter. “A lot of people in the local community are not able to access mental health services. We want to make everything bilingual, so it takes double time. We hope to cater to both populations,” she says. What gets Powell excited is the new wave of psychological interventions that go beyond traditional one-on-one, face-to-face therapy. Internet therapy using hybrid models – a combination of therapist time on Zoom supported by online education materials – is proving to be more efficient and affordable, making it more widely accessible. Cognitive behavioural therapy, a deceptively simple mental health tool “Sometimes we need someone to coach us to get the maximum benefit, but rather than seeing a therapist for 60 minutes once a week, that call might be 20 to 30 minutes for a check-in on the client situation, understand their learning and what kind of materials they need next,” says Powell. Building on the success of Mind HK’s Youth Wellbeing Practitioner programme, a six-week training course with a nine-month placement , the programme will be extended to train 100 people a year and renamed iACT (Improving Access to Community Therapies). “We hope everyone facing mental health and mood issues will be able to get support,” says Powell. Another key project aims to reduce the stigma of mental health issues . The “More than a Label” campaign encourages people to look beyond stigmatising labels associated with mental health diagnosis through sharing personal stories. “We are training people with lived experience to share their stories,” says Powell. “[Mental health] stigma is less than it was 20 years ago, but it still exists, it’s the ‘not in my backyard’ mindset. The most effective strategy is to let people come in contact with people with lived experience and then they will know they are just like us.” To celebrate Mind HK’s fifth anniversary in October, it will collaborate with several restaurants, asking them to design dishes related to mental health. Watch for news about “Food for thought, time to talk”, which will encourage people to gather to chat over a meal rather than eat while scrolling through their phones. How an art summit can help ‘break the chains of mental health stigma’ “An important element of mental health is connection ,” says Powell. Taking on such a big job in the post-pandemic era when mental health issues loom larger than ever is bound to come with some stress, so what does Powell do to look after her own well-being? She combines cooking and spending time with family, hiking in the country park with her husband, Philip, and two dogs, and Thai boxing. “Seeing the dogs after a hard day’s work halves my stress and Thai boxing is great; it feels good to have a sweat and intense motion,” she says. Like what you read? Follow SCMP Lifestyle on Facebook , Twitter and Instagram . You can also sign up for our eNewsletter here .