Written By: Yu Ting Pak
Although it has been over two years since the Covid-19 pandemic first hit Hong Kong, we find ourselves faced with the worst wave of outbreaks. With the strictest restrictions to date and a potential city lockdown, we are thrown again into a state of unease.
"New normal” implies a sense of adjusted stability, whereas in Hong Kong we are continuously adjusting to dynamically changing city-wide restrictions, compulsory travel quarantine orders, and isolation procedures for those who test positive for Covid-19. In addition, many of us are experiencing direct changes in our daily lives, including various work from home policies and school closures. The repeated cycle of adjusting and readjusting has become the unwelcomed constant in our lives.
The impact to our mental health has been discussed since the early stages of the pandemic as lockdowns and isolations quickly became reality. Now two years later, we have a clearer sense of how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted our wellbeing, particularly through observations from countries that were hit significantly by the pandemic. Many of the observations have been gathered from those living in the United States, Europe, United Kingdom, and China.
How is the pandemic impacting our mental health?
More adults are now reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression than ever before. Since the Covid-19 pandemic first hit, there has been a reported 25% increase of anxiety and depression worldwide. Common symptoms reported include:
- Feelings of being down and depressed
- Low motivation/energy
- Feeling nervous or on edge
- Difficulties in controlling worries
- Increased sleep difficulties
- Appetite changes
- Low motivation or energy
- Worsened chronic illness conditions
- Increase in substance and alcohol use (both new and increased usage)
One indicator to determine if we are experiencing negative mental health concerns is our ability or inability to engage in typical day-to-day activities. When we look at the main aspects of our daily lives, many would identify the key components as:
The pandemic has such a profound impact on mental health because most of these have been impacted all at the same time. When key components of our lives take a hit, it's a major sign that we need to take care of our mental health.
Who is most likely to be impacted?
Although we are all susceptible to experience adverse mental health issues, several populations are particularly at risk as a result of the changes taken place throughout this pandemic:
Our young adults aged 18 - 24 report significantly more mental health issues during the pandemic than other adult age groups. Young adults are originally a vulnerable population, more likely to report substance and alcohol use and suicidal ideations in general.
This is understandable in the context of the pandemic — young adults are usually either in university or working for the first time, however many are now faced with virtual school or starting work for the first time remotely. Young adults are also found with higher reports of substance use and suicidal thought.
In 2021, more than half of secondary school students in Hong Kong reported symptoms of depression, while 1 in 4 students reported high levels of anxiety. These numbers are even higher among university students.
Individuals with Recent Job Loss
Job loss on its own is already a stressful transition during regular circumstances. Individuals who lost jobs during the pandemic have reported higher experiences of mental health issues than those with job security, including overall lowered self-esteem. Higher risks of substance and alcohol use are also found to be reported in this group.
Women with Children
Women with children are found to report significantly more symptoms of anxiety and depression than men with children. This is impacted by closure of schools and day care, resulting in reduced childcare support.
Understandably, our frontline workers are found to report more experience of negative mental health outcomes given the increased possibility of exposure to Covid-19. This not only includes our healthcare workers, but also those who work in restaurants, pharmacies, public transit, etc. Frontline workers are also found to report higher levels of substance use and suicidal thoughts throughout the pandemic.
Individuals who received a Covid-19 diagnosis
Individuals who have recovered from Covid-19 are found to report experiencing anxiety and/or depressive related symptoms. In addition, many report experiencing guilt related to blaming themselves for contracting Covid-19, transmitting the virus to their family, or placing their loved ones at risk. There are also reports of trauma related to their stay at the hospital.
What can Hong Kong do?
As we find ourselves well into the Omicron outbreak, what is becoming apparent is that there is a gap in care to those in need. That is compounded by Hong Kong’s ongoing challenge of tackling the stigma of seeking mental health support that has existed prior to the pandemic.
Initiatives supporting an increase of mental health support for these target groups, namely in schools, youth-oriented NGO’s, hospitals for medical workers, and corporation organizations, can signify the first steps in increasing the availability of mental health support to the public:
Mental health support in schools and communities
Funding for additional mental health support in schools and community centres can be essential in providing support to the wider population, especially to our youth and young adults. Other countries including the UK and US have addressed this through government funding for school initiatives. In addition steps towards increasing the presence of mental health professionals within the school community is also crucial.
Mental health support for frontline/medical workers
Psychologists and therapists for frontline healthcare workers, particularly those in hospital and emergency settings can provide additional support to our healthcare professionals. Common in the US, crisis debriefing is designed to support responders address immediate health concerns.
With the structure of work-from-home, individuals across various industries face an increase in stress. This stress may be compounded in those who are balancing increased child-care needs due to school closures, as well as face questions of job security. Companies recognizing and addressing the various needs of their employees can help aid in reducing compounded stress. An example of this is increased flexibility for working mothers, with the understanding that parents now face increased responsibilities while their children are undergoing remote school or taking their early summer break. Additionally, company sponsored mental health education can enable better health outcomes.
What is clear is that the mental health crisis will continue to be a growing concern in Hong Kong, which will likely continue after the pandemic subsides when we address the resulting aftermaths. At this time, what is helpful is to provide support to the general population, especially those identified that are particularly at risk.
1. Ashley Kirzinger Follow @AshleyKirzinger on Twitter, L. H. F. @lizhamel on T. (2020, April 28). KFF Health Tracking Poll – late April 2020: Coronavirus, social distancing, and contact tracing - economic and mental health impacts. KFF. Retrieved March 11, 2022, from https://www.kff.org/report-section/kff-health-tracking-poll-late-april-2020-economic-and-mental-health-impacts-of-coronavirus/
2. De Kock, J. H., Latham, H. A., Leslie, S. J., Grindle, M., Munoz, S.-A., Ellis, L., Polson, R., & O’Malley, C. M. (2021, January 9). A rapid review of the impact of covid-19 on the mental health of Healthcare Workers: Implications for supporting psychological well-being - BMC public health. BioMed Central. Retrieved March 11, 2022, from https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12889-020-10070-3#Sec13
3. Hong Kong's mentally ill youth are suffering in silence. South China Morning Post. (2022, February 3). Retrieved March 11, 2022, from https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3165561/hong-kong-failing-address-growing-mental-health-crisis-among-its