A Little Empathy

Two days ago, some friends and I went to a popular 茶餐廳 (cha chaan teng, literally, ‘tea restaurant’) for lunch. Within seconds of arriving, we heard a loud stream of Cantonese profanities, punctuated only by shrill cries of ‘democracy’, ‘independence’ and ‘ridiculous’. Searching for the source of the commotion, my eyes found an elderly man hunched beside another group of waiting students (as I said, this restaurant is popular). He was hurling the same fragmented insults again and again, raising his voice whenever an onlooker smiled (from his perspective) dismissively.

The man was evidently unwell. And the students seemed to know. So they continued to wait, staring nonchalantly at their phones until a waitress called their number. Eventually, the same waitress also called the police. Of course, shouting in a public space is not a crime in Hong Kong. Nonetheless, I still had some trepidation – given our city’s reputation as a community that still stigmatises mental illnesses, the Hong Kong police did not seem to me to be the most well equipped to recognise, empathise with and help aggravated mental illness sufferers. But the policemen who came were professional and understanding, and gently asked him what was the matter. Gradually, he calmed down. From the little we could glean, the man had lost his livelihood, possibly during the Occupy Central movement, which had ended just over two years ago. He had consequently lost his apartment as well because he could not pay the rent. Regardless of whether these years of pent-up bitterness triggered his outburst yesterday, or whether it was a genuine account at all, the man was obviously stuck in a cycle of despondence and desperate anger, which he unfortunately directed at the students.

What struck me was not his ceaseless barrage of insults, but the reactions that it elicited. Most onlookers who commented on the situation were clearly sympathetic towards the students, but none towards the man. Instead, the surrounding faces were marked by irritation. A few even disgust. Some explicitly remarked that they felt much more sorry for the students than the man, because the students’ afternoons were now ruined. Or that they wanted the man to be arrested, good riddance. Frankly, this irked me. In the first place, the students did not look all that perturbed. If they felt too uncomfortable, they could have always left. Sure, being shouted at could not have given them an amazing time. But whatever distress they may have experienced would have been temporary – probably even easily washed down with some good food and retrospective laughs, or the thought of having a ‘juicy’ story to tell their friends. The man, on the other hand, had no such options. Would I rather be subjected to his insults for less than half an hour or be filled with so much misplaced anger that wiling away my hours shouting at passers-by becomes an appealing pastime?

Even if he were arrested, it would have done nothing to solve the actual problem. I doubt he would have been referred to a specialist outpatient clinic or otherwise given the mental healthcare services that he so clearly needs. In all likelihood an arrest would have made him feel even more marginalised and ignored. Admittedly, public mental healthcare services are woefully limited. But that does not take away from the fact that wanting such people removed from our vicinities without even trying to empathise with them is not an ideal way forward.

Just last week, another elderly man had set himself on fire on the MTR (the underground railway system in Hong Kong) at rush hour, an eery mirror image of the 2004 incident. He had a history of paranoia, and although his condition had been stable, he had missed his most recent check-ups. I understand that this does not make his actions any less terrible (19 passengers were injured, some critically). But this also highlights, like the 2004 incident did, how inadequate the Hong Kong mental healthcare system is. Almost a quarter of Hong Kong residents are estimated to suffer from a mental illness, yet psychiatric patients in the public sector have the longest waiting time out of all specialties. Among the seven hospital districts, the longest wait is currently over three years. Our psychiatrist-patient ratio is also ridiculously low compared to other developed nations (only 4.5 per 100,000 people; in the UK, the ratio is 14.6 per 100,000, and in Australia, it is 9.16 per 100,000). Not to mention that only 344 psychiatrists work in public hospitals or clinics.

And yet many reactions to the fire were fuelled by anger. Why did he have to hurt others too? If he wanted to die so much, he should have killed himself somewhere else, quietly. But the tenet of mental illnesses is that they do not deal in the currency of rationality. Does shouting at random students because you lost your job and apartment make any sense? Is setting yourself on fire, knowing that you will likely injure other passengers, remotely reasonable? Imagine how tortured he must have been to consider self-immolation the best way out. He was in no place to properly evaluate the consequences of his actions. Even if, in that moment, he felt a searing rage to see others hurt, he could not have rationally comprehended the harm that he caused them.

Having been fortunate enough to grow up in schools keen to teach their students about mental health, I wholly underestimated how widespread misconceptions are. I was shocked to hear one of my Medical Humanities instructors tell us how frustrated she was when her close friend (who had committed suicide) ‘chose to be so depressed’. Thankfully, she is not a doctor (if she were, I would be even more worried about our mental healthcare system). Not that that is necessarily an excuse.

I say all this not from some pedestal of superiority, because I am no expert on mental illnesses. But as someone who suffers from cleanliness anxiety and who knows family friends crippled by clinical depression, I could not help but empathise with the two men above. Lashing out at my parents after an anxious incident, sometimes until they cry, is not exactly comparable to screaming at passers-by, but I think it stands on the same principle. What mentally ill people need is not more fear or marginalisation. The least they could ask for is a little empathy.


The Samaritans Hong Kong +852 2896 0000 is a round-the-clock hotline offering emotional support for anyone experiencing emotional distress and/or suicidal thoughts, no matter how disturbing or ordinary the problem may seem.

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