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One in three Hong Kong adults likely have post-traumatic stress: study

Pro-democracy demonstrators retreat as police advance in on their position, in Hong Kong, on Oct. 1, 2019. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times/TNS)
January 20, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Around one third of adults in Hong Kong have reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) since the protest movement escalated last June, according to a mental health survey published in The Lancet on Friday.

Around of 32 percent of adults surveyed in the study from September to November last year reported suspected PTSD or depressive symptoms, the study found.

The medical journal said the increase in mental health problems, which also included depressive symptoms, was similar to that seen in war zones or in places subjected to terrorist attacks.

The prevalence of PTSD symptoms was six times higher than immediately following the 2014 pro-democracy movement in the city, when it stood at around five percent of those surveyed.

The figures would translate into around 1.9 million adults with such symptoms, in a population of 7.4 million.

Meanwhile, more than 10 percent of adults said they were suffering from depressive symptoms, compared with just two percent before the 2014 Occupy Central movement and 6.5 percent in 2017.

“One in five adults now reports probable depression or suspected PTSD, which is comparable to those experiencing armed conflicts, large-scale disasters, or terrorist attacks,” the report said.

“Hong Kong is under-resourced to deal with this excess mental health burden,” professor Gabriel Leung, dean of medicine at the University of Hong Kong, who co-led the research, told reporters.

In the largest study of its kind to date, the researchers compiled their figures from several surveys carried out on 18,000 people from 2009 through 2019, in a bid to understand the population wide mental health impact of social unrest.

Rights groups have warned that Hong Kong is now in a state of humanitarian crisis after police fired more than 16,000 rounds of tear gas in recent months, with around 1,000 of those fired into the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) campus during a single day in November.

Frontline protesters, eyewitnesses, journalists and human rights groups have repeatedly said that the majority of violence during the protests has originated with the Hong Kong police, who have been widely criticized for the excessive use of tear gas, water cannon, pepper spray, as well as both non-lethal and live ammunition weapons on unarmed protesters.

Arrests of voluntary medical staff

The Lancet has also published concerns over the handcuffing and arrests of voluntary medical staff, including nurses and doctors, during the siege of the Polytechnic University by riot police in December 2019.

Concerns were growing on Friday over the moderator of a Telegram group coordinating behind-the-scenes medical services for protesters too worried about arrest to seek treatment at hospitals.

The activist, known only by their online nickname @Carriedothistoo, had been detained in mainland China and their cell phone confiscated, according to posts on social media linked to the protest movement.

Civil Party lawmaker Alvin Yeung said the organization, known as National Disaster Loyal Medics, had been engaged only in humanitarian activities.

He said any humanitarian workers who helped protesters are now vulnerable when traveling to mainland China.

“It seems that any Hongkonger who helped or offered support to the protesters in any way, whether in a humanitarian or another capacity, is now at risk of losing their freedom once they cross the border into mainland China,” Yeung told reporters.

A recent opinion poll by Reuters found that most of Hong Kong’s residents support the five demands of the protest movement, with more than one third of respondents saying they had attended a protest.

Only 30 percent said they were opposed, compared with 59 percent of those polled who supported the movement.

The study authors said that the actual mental health impact may be even broader, however, as their study didn’t include the under-18 age group, many of whom have been involved in frontline protests.

Co-lead researcher Michael Ni said the study showed that unrest could lead to public health issues.

“With social unrest rising around the world, including in major cities such as Barcelona, Delhi, Paris, and Santiago in 2019, the issue of how social unrest impacts population mental health is of great public-health importance,” Ni told journalists.

‘Under-resourced to deal with this’

But Leung said Hong Kong lacks the mental resources to help people adequately.

“Hong Kong is under-resourced to deal with this excess mental health burden,” he said.

“With only around half the per-capita psychiatry capacity of the UK, and pre-existing average public sector outpatient waiting times of up to 64 weeks, it is important that we enhance mental health and social care provision so that all those in need are able to access high-quality services.”

Hong Kong food and health secretary Sophia Chan said on Nov. 30 that the government would investigate the mental health impact of the protests, but the results of that investigation have yet to be made public.

Frontline protesters have spoken to RFA about the mental trauma they have suffered from facing off with fully equipped riot police over a prolonged period of time.

“Sometimes if I hear a sudden loud noise just going about my daily life, for example if a car drives over a plastic water bottle as I’m walking down the street, I hear that bang, and it makes me suddenly very anxious,” a protester, “Tom”, told RFA in September.

“This is purely the result of hearing gunshots [at the protests]. Even meditation hasn’t managed to calm me down, and I have palpitations.”

As the study was published, Simon Cheng, who was fired by the U.K. Consulate in Hong Kong after being arrested at a high-speed rail station in the city and tortured across the border in China, announced he had cut off ties with his family back home, in an apparent bid to protect them from reprisals.

“The authorities told me during the interrogation that they knew who my family members were, and threatened them, saying that I would also have to take into account the status of my assets in mainland China,” Cheng told the Epoch Times.

“I have cut off contact with relatives on the mainland, and I have very limited contact with relatives in Hong Kong,” said Cheng, who was given a temporary, two-year visa to the U.K. after his ordeal.

Plans by chief executive Carrie Lam to make amendments to extradition laws that would allow the extradition of alleged criminal suspects to face trial in mainland China sparked mass street protests, soon followed by widespread public anger at police use of force against peaceful demonstrators and demands for fully democratic elections.

Lam has since formally withdrawn the hated amendments, but has stopped short of meeting protesters’ demands for an amnesty for arrestees, an independent public inquiry into police violence and abuse of power, an end to the description of protesters as “rioters,” and fully democratic elections.