Journalist: Erika Na
Published: 1:15pm, 9 Dec, 2023
Hong Kong’s young people are suffering from mental health issues in the wake of the pandemic, which left them feeling ‘disconnected’ and lacking social skills
A son and father talk about their own experiences, while an expert offers parents practical tips to better communicate with and support their children
Hong Kong’s young people are suffering in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
A study published by the Chinese University of Hong Kong in November painted a bleak picture of their mental health: nearly one in four children and adolescents aged six to 17 had experienced at least one mental health issue in the past year, and more than 8 per cent of secondary school students had thought about suicide.
The most common sources of distress include study-related pressure, family relationships and interpersonal issues. And while Covid-19 restrictions are well behind us, the negative effects of the pandemic are still obvious – particularly when it comes to students’ social skills.
“Even after classes resumed, they may still not be used to being with others face to face, and may have not been able to adapt to processing emotions or communicating normally in a classroom environment,” says Professor Alex Chan Chi-keung, dean of the School of Arts and Humanities at Tung Wah College and consultant to charity Save the Children Hong Kong.
“This may lead to anxiety and physical symptoms.”
The pandemic certainly was a challenging time for 11-year-old Colin Choi. He says that while taking online classes from home, he felt he was not learning much. Worse, he had a strong sense of being disconnected from others.
“It felt like there was a border between everyone. There was no sense of belonging, because there was no communication and interaction between friends,” Colin says.
While some classmates could follow what was being taught, others struggled, he adds. “So you feel like you’re very different from each other.”
The effects of being separated for so long continued when everyone was back in the classroom.
“Even when we were back to school, we didn’t have anything to talk about because we hadn’t spent much time together. We didn’t even play the same mobile phone games.”
Some students found it difficult to adjust to school life after in-person classes resumed.
“Back at school, some classmates weren’t even talking or answering any questions. Some found it harder to adjust to the new environment because they hadn’t even communicated within their families. Everybody in their family had something to do and there was no communication between them.”
He recalls a classmate who just sat sleeping, sprawled across his desk. “He wasn’t doing anything, he wasn’t listening to class.”
Colin’s father, Michael Choi, who has two other children and is chairman of the Yau Tsim Mong Federation of Parents-Teachers Association, says many parents are still struggling now, but are not comfortable asking for help.
“A lot of parents are very lost with their kids in terms of their progress … I don’t think they have a lot of time to really pay attention – especially the ones that have more than one child,” Choi says.
“We have met a lot of proud parents who are in need of help, but don’t want to admit it. I know some families that have troubles and tragedies that are very reluctant to get help.”
Reluctance to seek help is culturally rooted in Chinese people, Choi believes. “Even with my old parents, they would get sick and we would only find out afterwards because they wouldn’t tell us.”
Many parents also feel pressure to have their children achieve top academic scores, and to be first in class, even in secondary-school placement tests, Choi says.
Parents need to come out and see that there are people, resources out there, wanting to help Michael Choi
One of the biggest problems Choi sees in his children is that they find it difficult to verbalise what they are feeling, because of the heavy use of smartphones and social media.
He and his children have had training sessions in practical skills to help them communicate better, using tools such as emotion cards to show and discuss different emotions and how they’re expressed.
Colin is also going through a training programme at his school through local mental health NGO Just Feel, aimed at helping students express themselves better using the same emotion cards that he uses at home.
The emotion cards are widely applicable. When asked how he felt in Zoom lessons during Covid-19, Colin hesitated, but soon identified two emotions with the help of the cards: bored and disappointed. What did he feel like he needed? Play, support and a sense of belonging.
As much as children need support, so too do parents living in notoriously stressful Hong Kong. Most parents want the best for their children, but may feel overwhelmed and not know where to start.
“Parents need to come out and see that there are people, resources out there, wanting to help. They need to be able to tell schools and organisations that they need help, and be able to accept it,” Choi says.
Help for parents to support and communicate with their children
The most immediate, powerful and intimate support students can get is from their parents and family.
Jocunda Yung, who develops and leads training programmes for parents and teachers with Just Feel, offers these tips to help parents better communicate with their children.
1. Recognise children’s stress through physical reactions
Watch how the child behaves throughout the day and notice cues. This will help parents understand what may be taking place internally, even when the child is not speaking.
Emotional signals including excitement, impatience and irritability
Physical signals including headaches, fatigue and loss of appetite
Cognitive signals such as decreased concentration and memory, self-dislike, and dissatisfaction with his or her performance
Behavioural signals such as restlessness and getting upset easily
2. Understand a child’s underlying feelings and needs behind stress by asking ‘why’
If your child is feeling stressed because they achieved lower grades than their friends, they may be feeling embarrassment, jealousy or shame. Their possible needs may be friendship and respect.
If your child is feeling stressed because they fear getting scolded by their parents, they may be feeling worry, nervousness or guilt. Their possible needs include love and safety.
3. Use compassionate listening skills to respond to children’s sharing
This will help the child feel understood and accepted, and calm their mind.
Use simple language confirmations such as “Mmm…”, “Oh, I see” and “Mom/dad is listening”.
Maintain eye contact. Leaning forward, nodding and placing a hand on the child’s shoulder or hand will reassure them.
Verbally express objective facts and feelings that you sense, saying things like: “I heard you say, ‘I don’t understand what the teacher is saying,’ are you feeling frustrated?” and “I notice that you’re frowning. Are you feeling worried?”
4. Avoid disconnection in communication
Using four disconnecting languages – diagnosis, denial, demand and deserve – risks making children feel they are not accepted nor understood. This could make them less willing to share their feelings and seek help.
“Diagnosis” refers to making moral judgments, labelling, comparing, analysing and persuading. An example is, “Why can’t you be as diligent as your brother?”
“Denial” is to negate the other person’s thoughts and feelings, for example, saying, “It’s no big deal, just forget about it and be happy.”
“Demand” is threatening, intimidating and inducing guilt in the other person, for instance, by saying “If you don’t obey my rules, I will be angry.”
“Deserve” emphasises responsibility. An example is saying, “Kids in Africa don’t even have any food. You should be grateful for having enough food, and not complain about the quality.”
5. Recognise the significance of self-care
Being in a stable, peaceful emotional state yourself will ensure that your interactions with your child are grounded in patience, empathy and understanding.
Check in on your feelings regularly, to identify any accumulated stress or emotional burden and acknowledge their impact on your well-being.
Don’t hesitate to reach out for support when needed. Talk to a trusted friend or family member, or seek guidance from a mental health professional.
If you have suicidal thoughts, or you know someone who is, help is available. For Hong Kong, dial +852 2896 0000 for The Samaritans or +852 2382 0000 for Suicide Prevention Services. In the US, call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or +1 800 273 8255. For a list of other nations’ helplines, see this page.