Covid-19: Suicides in Hong Kong reach ‘crisis’ level, as researcher urges reopening of leisure facilities for mental health

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The number of suicides in Hong Kong has reached a critical level, said suicide prevention researchers at the University of Hong Kong. They urged the government to reopen leisure facilities as soon as possible, so people facing increased isolation and mental health risks – especially the elderly – can reconnect with friends and loved ones.

A suicide prevention early warning system developed by the university’s HKJC Center for Suicide Research and Prevention (CSRP) issued a warning last Wednesday, after the seven-day average estimate of suicides in the city has exceeded an “extremely high” level of 3.54..

The rise could be attributed to fear of Covid-19, isolation under social distancing restrictions and economic hardship, the researchers said.

“We believe that social distancing has introduced not only physical distancing, but also emotional disconnection, leading to feelings of isolation and abandonment by family members and their community… [causing] an impact on mental health,” Yip said.

Photo: GovHK.

The alert system available at the center website produces a daily suicide risk index based on suicide cases reported in the press. Without official figures on the daily number of suicides, the HKU database offers an estimate of the number of daily suicides in the city.

It was constructed by matching reports of suicide cases in 2019 with those recorded by the Coroner’s Court to produce a weighted estimate of media-reported cases in 2020 and 2021 using machine learning techniques, compensating for errors such as under-reported cases or duplicates.

While conventional methods of monitoring suicide statistics typically have a six-month to three-year time lag, the CSRP system projects daily numbers. The system consists of three alert levels – medium risk, high risk and crisis level – depending on the number of suicides recorded by the system over the past year.

The system indicated that the suicide index reached 3.69 on March 20, crossing the “crisis level” threshold of 3.56. It rose to 4.01 the next day.

Photo: HKU.

Paul Yip, director of the CSRP, said it was the first time the index had risen above crisis level since its launch in 2020, making it an “extremely worrying” indication of the stressors Hong Kongers were facing. under the fifth wave of Covid-19, especially the elderly.

Suicides in Hong Kong hit historic highs in 2003, with about 1,200 suicide deaths, or 18.6 suicides per 100,000 people, when the city was hit by the SARS epidemic and the subsequent economic downturn. . The rate has since dropped significantly, Yip said.

However, although the January to February figures are comparable to the 2021 average, the data has become “very worrying” since February 28. Current numbers hover around 11 to 12 suicide cases per 100,000 residents, meaning the city could see its annual total of suicides. “well above” 2003 levels, Yip warned.

Caritas Medical Center in Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong during the fifth wave of the Covid-19 outbreak. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Suicide Prevention Services (SPS), a non-profit organization that runs a hotline for those seeking help, said it received 50% more calls this year compared to the previous 12 months, including more than 80 % were related to the pandemic.

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Isolation under Covid-19 is hitting the elderly particularly hard, they said. The social lives of many older people centered on parks and swimming pools or visiting family members, but recreational facilities were closed for weeks and limits on family gatherings and restaurants left many people feel isolated and abandoned.

“The feeling of isolation will easily lead to suicidal thoughts,” Yip said. “Fighting the epidemic is important, vaccination is important, but taking care of our elderly is just as important.”

In a recorded interview broadcast by SPS during the press conference, an elderly woman who asked for help from SPS spoke. Under an alias, Ms Wong, who suffered from broken bones in both arms, told how she struggled to meet the daily needs of her and her husband, just when they were both infected with the virus. coronavirus. “They are dead, why not me?” she says.

Ms Wong said she was very frustrated at not being able to provide for her own day-to-day needs, not being able to go out when they tested positive for Covid and not knowing how to complete government forms or send information to authorities electronically. “I wanted to do it but I didn’t know how. I just wanted to cry,” she said in the recording.

Yip said the HKU center wanted to appeal to the community and urge them to connect more with parents and senior citizens, adding that daily five-minute phone calls could make a big difference. “I think each of us should do our fair share [to] show our concern for the people we think need help,” Yip said.

The city has recorded 1,143,788 cases of Covid-19 and 7,591 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

IIf you are experiencing negative feelings, please call: The Samaritans 2896 0000 (24 hours, multilingual), Suicide Prevention Center 2382 0000 or the Social Welfare Department 2343 2255. The Hong Kong Society of Counseling and Psychology offers a WhatsApp hotline in English and Chinese: 6218 1084. See also: HKFP’s Complete Guide to Mental Health Services in Hong Kong.
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