Depressed, Hong Kong singer felt like 'rubbish that needed to be disposed of'

PHOTO: South China Morning Post

It’s hard to believe, looking at the sunny Lesley Chiang Li-wen, that the Hong Kong actress and singer-songwriter has contemplated suicide not once, but three times.

In the years since 2014, when she considered jumping from her balcony, she has found peace through counselling, exercising, journaling, sleeping well and the support of her fiancé. Now she wants to raise awareness of mental health issues.

Chiang, also known as Keung Lai-man, attended the 2019 Mind HK Media Awards at the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) in Hong Kong in February this year to speak about the portrayal of mental health issues in the media. In an emotional speech about her battle with depression, she recalled the first time she found herself ready to attempt suicide.

After the end of a serious relationship, Chiang, then 28, spiralled into depression. “Dark thoughts became a regular thing,” she said, which included feeling like “rubbish that needed to be disposed of”.

One night, she wrote goodbye letters to her loved ones, and penned lines to what she thought would be her final song, Tonight, which had lyrics like: “Say goodbye tonight, I’m jumping tonight”.

“It wasn’t just about the break-up any more; it was about my life being meaningless,” Chiang said.

Ironically, the song ended up being the very thing that saved her life. In the end, she stepped away from her balcony and back into her flat to finish writing it. During her talk at the FCC, the Canada-raised Hongkonger recounted how she had seriously contemplated suicide twice more after that.

“It’s almost embarrassing and silly … that you’re nearly taking your life, then the next moment you’re distracted and think that you’ll do that later to complete this beautiful song that will define you and your passing,” Chiang told the Post.

To combat the stigma that mental health carries in Asia, the actress believes it a part of her mission to be as vocal and as open as possible about the topic and her past. According to the World Health Organisation, depression affects more than 264 million people globally and – according to research by the University of Hong Kong that was published in medical journal The Lancet in 2019 – around one in 10 people in Hong Kong.

Chiang, who says a year-and-a-half of therapy helped her recover from her aborted suicide attempt in 2014, humanises her illness by calling it “Borat” – a comedic character in a film of the same name. The idea comes from conversations with her brother, who found his sister’s depression had changed her personality. It was as if she had been possessed by a ghost.

“It became a regular thing, telling my friends, ‘by the way, his name is Borat; he lies, he’s a douchebag and it’s terrible’,” she says of how she learned to talk about her depression and suicidal feelings more easily with others.

Armed with a greater understanding of depression and her coping strategies, Chiang is now better prepared for when the feelings overwhelm her again. “It’s so random when it arrives … I need to be ready,” she says.

One way to prepare is through regular exercise, which she does three to fives times a week. “After exercise, you get [a release of] endorphins [hormones that trigger a positive feeling in the body] and feel great and more energised,” she says.

When busy filming or working, Chiang does shorter routines, such as performing 100 squats in between scenes. She also releases workout videos on her YouTube channel, such as one called “5 Minute Abs with Lesley 30-day Challenge”, which incorporates flutter kicks, reaching oblique crunches, hip raises, Russian twists, leg raises, toe taps and toe-touch crunches.

Her chihuahua, Jellybean, appears often as her on-screen cheerleader, spurring her on.

Good sleep is a must, and Chiang aims to get six to eight hours of rest daily when she is not filming. “I don’t look at my phone one hour before bed because the blue light keeps me awake,” she says. She tries to be in bed by 10.30pm.

“I make sure to rest and sleep well, as I know how important quality sleep is.”

Journaling helps, too – every day, she rates her anxiety and depression levels from zero to 10 in her diary, which she allows her engineer fiancé, Pak Ho, to read to better support her when needed.

“We have rules. Anything higher than four out of 10 [for depression] means I’m thinking of suicide or starting to get dark thoughts, so watch out. Maybe take a day off work or just be more attentive to me,” she says, adding that he is great at distracting her, such as asking if she wants to go hiking when there are signs she may be feeling blue.

Some of her other ways to navigate around her depression are to have a massage, watch feel-good films and cook for her friends.

“If you have a wonderful partner or friends or parents or whomever, trust them and let them know [what’s going on],” she says – people should not battle mental ill-health alone. “Don’t keep it inside,” she says.

When she encounters a roadblock, she reminds herself: “This, too, shall pass.”

Chiang, who wants to normalise conversations in Asia about depression and therapy, is an ambassador for Hong Kong charity Suicide Prevention Services, and it’s a role she takes seriously. She and her fiancé donated the money they would have spent on a pricey diamond engagement ring to the charity, opting instead for a crystal ring. Chiang says that her mental health advocacy is part of her daily life.

Thoughts of self-harm no longer plague her, even during these current tough times. “The fact that I survived suicidal thoughts and attempts many times proves to everybody we can get through this,” she says, in reference to the measures brought in across the world to slow the spread of the coronavirus. “The happiness I feel now … oh God, it’s worth it, to live on.”

If you are having 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 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on +1 800 273 8255. 

  • Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444
  • Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019
  • Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800-353-5800
  • Tinkle Friend: 1800-274-4788
  • Institute of Mental Health's Mental Health Helpline: 6389-2222
  • Silver Ribbon: 6386-1928

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.