Hong Kong Was In A Mental Health Crisis. COVID-19 Made It Worse.

‘It got to the point where I became too afraid to go to sleep.’
December 31, 2020, 12:30am
Hong Kong; COVID; Hong Kong protests; ment
A recent spike in COVID-19 cases has brought tighter social restrictions to Hong Kong. Photo: PETER PARKS / AFP 

2020 was a hard year for many as the world grappled with COVID-19 and rising levels of stress, uncertainty and anxiety. In Hong Kong, the issue was compounded by political turmoil as Beijing moved to crack down on dissent. 

“This year was supposed to be about rest and self care,” said Cheung Lok Ching, who participated in the 2019 anti-government movement in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory. But scenes of clashes between protesters and police still haunted her and kept her awake at night even to this date.

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“Taking part in such physically demanding protests wrecked my mind and inflicted a lot of trauma,” Cheung told VICE World News.

Her feelings of hopelessness and mental fatigue are not unwarranted or rare. Experts have warned of a mental health crisis as political unrest continues to weigh on the minds of the city’s youth, who made up the bulk of the protesters who filled Hong Kong’s streets in 2019.

Following a tumultuous year of protests in 2019, the coronavirus reached Hong Kong in January. Annual Chinese New Year festivities were cancelled, schools and workplaces shut and life was disrupted as the city began adopting social distancing measures.

The number of infections continued to rise over the following months. But before residents could find time to breathe while adapting to the strange, new way of living, more life-changing events unfolded as Beijing implemented its controversial and dreaded national security law in June, dealing the heaviest blow to the pro-democracy movement in the former British colony since it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

“The people of Hong Kong have faced a series of non-stop stressful events and we are still seeing waves today,” said Stephanie Wong from Hong Kong University’s department of psychiatry, who was speaking at a virtual seminar in November that addressed rising mental health issues in the city. “Ongoing social unrest since June 2019, followed by the outbreak of COVID-19 in January and then the national security law.” 

That’s the roller coaster ride that 26-year-old Cheung experienced. After the protests died down, she spent the early part of 2020 recuperating, until the bad news got worse.

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“It got to the point where I became too afraid to go to sleep,” she said. 

“I was weary and exhausted and had to take a breather from everything that was constantly happening around me, thinking that the downtime would do my mind and body some good.”

“But it never did. With every month that passed, things only got worse and worse.” 

Roger Ng, president of the Hong Kong College of Psychiatry, said he saw a rise in the number of patients suffering from depression, anxiety and mood adjustment disorders this year compared to previous years. 

He attributed this to rising unemployment and the recession and also highlighted the “spread of misinformation” about the disease and infection rates that was a major source of stress among people and created public panic attacks.

“Social and political unrest combined with the coronavirus pandemic has dealt a major blow to the daily lives of Hong Kongers. This year has been a very difficult time for many and has had a severe impact on mental health.” 

This was evident in Phineas Lee, another protester in his 20s, who suffers from chronic depression. 

In August, Lee watched both his parents lose their jobs after their restaurant shut down and expressed his own worries and hopelessness about his future in a city coming under Beijing’s tightening rule. 

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“Hong Kong has been in a constant state of darkness and gloom. The constant bad news doesn’t make life feel any better. It’s very tough,” Lee told VICE World News in a phone call.

“We can no longer enjoy the freedom, rights and privileges that our parents and previous generations worked so hard for. It feels very helpless. Everything is now beyond our control and there isn’t hope or anything more to live for.” 

Making matters worse for Hong Kong’s youth, said Washington-based activist Jeffrey Ngo, many were especially not willing to seek help for mental health conditions because of concerns that information they shared with doctors and other public health officials would end up being “retained” in the public health care system and reported to the police.

“By virtue of seeking help, one has to explain how things might have affected you,” Ngo said. 

“With the implementation of the national security law, reporting others to the authorities is encouraged so one would naturally be very cautious about telling a psychiatrist or psychologist that he or she might have thrown a molotov cocktail during a protest. This would definitely make people reluctant in seeking help.” 

Unlike physical conditions, experts said, mental health issues can often prove to be more difficult and challenging to treat. The consequences can also be long-term.

A study in January conducted by researchers at the University of Hong Kong found that nearly a third of adults in the city experienced symptoms of PTSD while one in 10 showed symptoms of depression.

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Psychiatry professors Eric Chen and Christy Hui said that the year of dissent and despair has likely led to a silent and “more deadly” crisis than years of political unrest. 

“Young Hong Kongers today actually face a lot more risks and pressure compared to their parents. Aside from academic stress, the pandemic has not allowed them to interact with their peers and the ongoing political situation has led to a lot of loneliness, isolation, general dissatisfaction in life and even suicidal ideation,” Chen said. 

For young Hong Kongers like Cheung and Lee, who continue to grapple with the trauma from the year, healing will be a time-consuming process that will come in waves. 

“The year wasn’t great but while I am relieved that it’s finally come to an end, I can’t say for sure if things will get better. I do know that life will never be the same again but we just have to accept it,” said Lee. 

As for Cheung, living with the trauma she endured during the protests hasn’t affected the way she still cares about her city. “I will always love Hong Kong, many of us will – even if it isn’t the same city we grew up in. But for now, we can only do our best to ride out the problems the best we can and hopefully the darkness will not last forever.”

Follow Heather Chen on Twitter.