At least 22 people in online forums and 80 chat groups on mobile messaging app Telegram have been recorded to be on the verge of committing suicide in the past five days, alarming local experts as protest-linked deaths accumulated to four since Hong Kong’s extradition bill protests began in June.
Some members left messages reiterating the demands of the protests, including the retraction of the bill, while some said they are considering suicide because they feel hopeless about the future, FactWire reports.
A registered social worker, who provides counselling services in the chat groups, observed around four urgent cases with patients of suicidal risks seeking help in two main chat groups on Telegram every day.
Many locals see the extradition bill amendment as one of the ways to wear down the city’s legal autonomy. The protests escalated after Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, announced on June 15 that the government will suspend the bill instead of retracting it, despite one million people – one out of seven citizens in the semi-autonomous city – took to the streets earlier, asking for a complete withdrawal.
That same day, a 35-year-old man fell to his death after unfurling a banner condemning the extradition bill on the side of a shopping mall in Hong Kong. Since then, three more suicides have been recorded, and the number of people seeking help has been going up.
Noting the surging rate, some social workers created Telegram groups for emotional support. Together with counsellors and psychologists, they provide counselling services to members who need help. So far there are around 3,000 members in the oldest chat group, while another group created this week has already accumulated 1,400 members.
The two groups generate more than 10,000 messages per day, said the senior manager of a local non-profit organization that provides support to teenagers. Most people seek professional help after they get off work, until late in the night.
Patients who urgently need help usually face one of the three situations: those with family members of polarized political stances, those with mostly pro-establishment colleagues or supervisors at their workplaces, or those with partners who share different views on protesting methods.
Social workers and counsellors who have been volunteering in the Telegram groups take shifts to provide service, the senior manager added. Around five to twenty volunteers in a shift will read and identify messages that indicate a risk of self-harm, and each will then message a person in private. Two to three volunteers will take turns to follow up with patients that are in need of more attention.
Volunteers are in dire shortage, however, the senior manager said, adding that they have been exhausted, as if “working on two jobs” in a day.
Locals also tried to fill the gap. More community members have identified the urgent need to provide emotional support to others as the protests develop, which led to the emergence of self-initiated grassroot groups. Citizens take shifts to be on call to help locate people at immediate risk of committing suicide.
The number of young people seeking help rose from 50 cases to an average of 200 to 300 cases per day since the first protest-linked death on June 15, according to Open Up, an online text platform designed to help youngsters who have experienced emotional distress. Most teens were recorded feeling guilty, helpless and hopeless. Other local social service organizations such as the Boys and Girls’ Club Association and the Samaritan Befrienders Hong Kong recorded 215 and 45 cases since June 15 respectively.
News reports could trigger those who are depressed or have suicidal tendencies to commit suicide, said Lynn Tang, an assistant professor at The University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention. Protesters may also consider suicide when they feel that there is no way out or blame themselves for not doing more in the protests.
Tang urged the government to use better ways to respond to their demands. She said the government should also properly address other issues aside from the extradition bill, which are the other part of the reasons youngsters feel hopeless.
Lam did not respond to questions regarding the recent suicides in a press conference on July 2. In a statement to Factwire’s enquiry, the government’s press department did not address whether they will restart public consultations on constitutional development and carry out studies to prevent further deaths under rising suicide rates. It expressed deep sadness on the recent suicides and encourage the public to help friends with emotional distress seek professional help.
In a letter addressing the heads of non-governmental organizations operating youth services and family services on July 4, the Social Welfare Department acknowledged that some organizations may have “deployed staff from their subvented youth service units” to provide “outreaching services” and “urgent assistance” for young people and their families.
The department said they are ready to “exercise flexibility on individual service units meeting of output standards under the relevant funding and service agreements”, taking into account the “special circumstances during this period” in the assessment of each organization in 2019 to 2020.
The letter further stated that the department will consider allocating resources to organizations submitting service initiatives that meet specific needs of young people and their families during this critical time.
Open Up (24Hrs): 9101 2012
The Boys’ & Girls’ Clubs Association of Hong Kong: 2866 6388
The Samaritan Befrienders Hong Kong: 2389 2222
Hospital Authority Psychiatric Hotline: 2466 7350
Cease Crisis Centre Hotline: 18281
Social Welfare Department: 2343 2255
Suicide Prevention Services: 2382 2000