Opinion: In brewing mental health crisis, Hong Kong must help its youth speak up about their troubles

Since the start of the new school year, there has been a distressing increase in student deaths across Hong Kong, affecting young people from primary school all the way through to university. The situation is similar to the suicide cluster of 2016. These tragic incidents are a desperate plea for help and highlight the urgent need to address young people’s emotional well-being.
The online emotional support system Open Up conducts an annual survey to track changes in their well-being. The latest annual telephone survey took place from August to November last year, interviewing 1,502 young people in Hong Kong aged between 11 and 35.

The survey revealed that 19 per cent and 18 per cent of the respondents were classified as suffering from depression and anxiety, respectively. These alarming statistics underscore the urgent need for change, not just in the school curriculum but also the mindset of parents and young people’s attitudes towards seeking help.

The same survey also revealed an increase in suicidal ideation, self-injury and suicide attempts among the younger generation. In particular, the number of youth with suicidal ideation increased from 9.36 per cent in 2021 to 21.66 per cent in 2022.

In addition, we have observed a shift in their help-seeking behaviour in recent years. According to the Open Up survey, friends and family members remain the most frequently sought sources of support.

However, many people hesitate to reach out because of concerns about burdening others or not knowing how to broach sensitive topics. This could explain the increasing use of online counselling services such as Open Up.

On World Suicide Prevention Day, spare a thought for our despairing youth

Even so, there are still many people in distress who have never sought help. On one hand, it is important to provide a private and secure space for the young people to discuss their mental health challenges. On the other, we need to educate our youth about the significance of seeking help.
Seeking support is not a sign of weaknesses; rather, it is a courageous act of acknowledging vulnerability and accepting the outstretched hands of others. The desire to escape is not uncommon, and mental health issues should never be taboo. We need to let young people know they are free to discuss their problems, assuring them that we are always ready to offer support.
Participants of a rally in Hong Kong on September 10, 2018, calling for more measures to help those vulnerable to suicide. Photo: Dickson Lee

Instead of judging them, dismissing their struggles and simply telling them suicide is not the right choice, we should listen to them without judgment, try to empathise and engage in open discussions about their suicidal thoughts, providing them with a sense of companionship and acceptance. By doing so, we can foster an environment where they feel more comfortable seeking help, increasing our chances of saving them from potential danger.

Therefore, we should pay more attention to the young people around us to identify those at risk. Warning signs are crucial indicators that should not be ignored. If someone shows behavioural changes, mood swings, unusual behaviour on social media or even discusses planning suicide, we should take the initiative to care and talk to them.
Parents should take the initiative to check on their children who are undergoing changing life stages, in particular. Family relationships have a significant impact on a person’s well-being, providing a support system that can foster emotional security. Positive, supportive environments can be achieved through open communication, shared experiences and mutual respect.
As society returns to normal after the Covid-19 pandemic, lecturers and classmates play a crucial role in supporting one another and creating a safer, more supportive learning environment. Regular interaction among classmates enables them to notice warning signs exhibited by others and offer support. Improved communication skills foster understanding, empathy and collaboration, promoting strong bonds and a cohesive learning community.
Tucker, a therapy dog, helps student relax at the Independent Schools Foundation Academy by sitting on their laps when they feel stressed. Photo: Joanne Ma
Moreover, it is crucial for parents to adopt a more open mindset. Instead of pushing their children onto a predetermined track and emphasising getting a head start, we should encourage our kids to explore their own path at their own pace. While education undoubtedly plays a vital role in the development of young people, fierce competition for academic excellence does not.
Parents should support their children in cultivating their talents and an interest in learning, aiming for holistic growth rather than just focusing on academic results. Family support is a crucial protective factor for mental health, regardless of age. If students see their parents as a source of stress, their support network is weakened.

While professionals such as psychiatrists, clinical psychologists and counsellors play a crucial role in intervening when people are experiencing serious distress or mental health issues, prevention comes before intervention. We can always pay more attention to the young people around us and take an extra step to show we care.

October is World Mental Health Month, so let us all be there for our students and young people by showing empathy, encouraging them to seek help and instilling hope. Together, we can create a supportive community that prioritises mental well-being and ensures that our youth have the resources and support they need to thrive.

Anson Yim is a senior research assistant at the HKJC Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention at the University of Hong Kong

Joyce Liu is a project manager at the HKJC Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention

Paul Yip is the director of the HKJC Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention

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