Teen-run organisation fights to end 'crazy' stigma around mental illness

PHOTO: Unsplash

When I was 13 my mother, who was 38 at the time, was diagnosed with depression. It was the seventies. “Mental illness” wasn’t a “thing”.

My mother’s condition was dismissed by many as malingering, and it initially confounded her family doctor. It was only when she presented the Oxford Dictionary’s definition to him and asked: “You don’t think I could be ‘depressed’, do you?” that she was able to get a diagnosis.

She was admitted to hospital for electroconvulsive therapy – in which electric currents are passed through the brain to intentionally trigger a seizure – and prescribed antidepressants, which she has continued to take ever since.

The condition was so unknown back then that few knew what to think of it. Dad asked me to ask her friends to visit her in hospital. “What’s the matter with her?” they asked. “She has depression,” I explained. Some wondered what she had to be depressed about. Most did not visit.

Mental Health Notebook co-founder Katelyn Au Yeung.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

At the time, I could have done with the help of Benedict Law Hin Tak and Katelyn Au Yeung. The organisation these two 17-year-olds have co-founded – Mental Health Notebook (MHN) – aims to improve teenagers’ mental health and their awareness of it, and to end the stigma that surrounds the issue so it can be talked about freely. It is “created by teenagers, for teenagers”, say Ben and Katelyn.

The inspiration for MHN was drawn from the pairs’ experiences of mental illness in people close to them. Katelyn’s best friend has struggled with severe depression and has self-harmed and been suicidal, and Ben has a close family member who attempted suicide in front of him when he was eight.

Mental Health Notebook co-founder Benedict Law Hin Tak.
Photo: Benedict Law Hin Tak

The couple set about destigmatising mental illness a year ago, after beginning dating a year before.

The pair say that this is especially necessary in Hong Kong: mental health charity Mind HK reported that 71 per cent of people would be unhappy to live with somebody who suffered with mental illness, and one in three people would consider ending a friendship with somebody diagnosed with a mental health condition.

“We believe mental health is especially stigmatised in Hong Kong because of Asian culture – it’s always been this way. It’s difficult for the situation to change when our grandparents and parents think people who are mentally ill are crazy,” says Ben.

Although my experience started decades before Ben and Katelyn’s, I remember the same “crazy” stigma surrounding mental illness, fuelled in part by the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) – which was released around the same time as my introduction to depression – and its misrepresentation of “unwell” as “mad”.

Stigma stymies important conversations, which is worrying when considering that the happiness of children in Hong Kong is ranked lower than in many other places.

Ben, Katelyn and their team at MHN work to effect change in several ways, including by sending out leaflets, hosting webinars for parents, and encouraging schools to do the same. Ben admits, however, that it is hard to influence how people think about mental health.

Communication between teens and parents needs to improve, as teens and parents find it hard to talk to each other about sensitive issues. Ben likens talking about mental health to having “the sex talk ”, in that parents think teens will not admit to mental health struggles – just as they will not admit to having, or wanting to have, sex.

Some of the statistics surrounding young people’s mental health are startling. In the United Kingdom, the National Health Service suggests that 17 per cent of children aged six to 16, and 18 per cent of young people aged 17 to 19 struggle with a mental disorder.

Ben suggests a combination of factors is to blame: Parents demanding high academic standards, the strain on students’ social and academic lives caused by the Covid pandemic, and feelings of isolation that result from being unable to talk openly to loved ones.

They also believe that social media creates a lot of problems, such as encouraging unkind comparisons between people. “This wasn’t a problem our parents had to contend with,” Ben says.

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While he acknowledges that many reports on mental illness in young people are valuable, “they are written by people who were teens 30 years ago… We believe that as teenagers ourselves, we relate to them better.”

MHN, which has more than 14,000 followers on Instagram and was a runner-up in the UK’s Global Social Leaders award – a prize given for contributions to the betterment of young people – has hosted more than 1,000 free tutoring lessons for teens who cannot afford to pay for their tutelage.

It also provides free online counselling sessions with trained counsellors predominantly from the UK and Hong Kong.

Now at boarding school in the UK, Ben cold calls the counsellors personally to recruit them. He says only about one in 100 agrees.

Teens who sign up for counselling will be allotted a counsellor on a first-come, first-served basis. Given the cost and limited availability of counselling everywhere, this is a precious resource.

The team recently completed a mental health report after asking 5,000 respondents aged 12 to 18 about their mental health at school and at home.

The report concludes that “76.8 per cent of our respondents believe that their parents do not have a good enough understanding of mental health and do not know how to support them”.

It also underscored the stigma surrounding mental health , as 82.8 per cent of respondents said they believe their parents were not able to talk about the issue openly.

Based on this report, which the organisation plans to present to the UK parliament, MHN made recommendations to schools – such as having more teacher training on mental illness, and introducing mental health lessons to the curriculum.

During October – mental health month – MHN is hosting a Students Mental Health Week. The highlight, says Katelyn, who studies at Kellett School in Hong Kong, will be a mental health online symposium on Oct 22.

It will involve stakeholders in teenage mental health, “including [UK] politicians who we have been working with, as well as academics from top universities such as Cornell and Oxford”.

Katelyn Au Yeung, along with her MHN co-founder Benedict Law Hin-tak, are trying to make mental health something that is more widely talked about.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Nobody understands teens’ mental health issues better than teens themselves. Although social media has at times proven problematic, it is MHN’s ability to harness it and other online technologies that has enabled the organisation to ask questions and help frame answers for many young people in need.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.