The Tragic Psychological Toll of the Hong Kong Protests

Learn more about the Hong Kong protests: Free Hong Kong – 香港人加油 美國支持你


Since June, the world’s eyes have been on Hong Kong—and rightfully so. As protesters round off yet another month of widespread demonstrations, the fate of Hong Kong and the future of Chinese rule are still unknown. But despite this ambiguity, a few things are painfully clear.

Though it’s been over six months since the movement began, protests are still drawing upwards of 800,000 participants. University students have been integral to the 2019 protests in Hong Kong. More than 6,000 people have been arrested in connection with demonstrations since June. And recent events—namely, China’s decision to double the number of active troops to the region—indicate that there’s no end in sight.

Though Hong Kong’s passionate protesters are inspiring, their circumstances are anything but hopeful. A mental health crisis has ballooned in Hong Kong in the wake of demonstrations.

In just five months, at least eight protesters have committed suicide as a result of the city’s turmoil. Social workers warn that more could follow. The uptick in suicides was so jarring that the group Reclaiming Social Work Movement mobilized a suicide response unit, which has handled over 150 would-be suicides by jumping in just three months of operation. That number is astonishing.

There’s no doubt that protest wreaks havoc on mental and physical health. For example, in Ferguson, Missouri in the wake of Michael Brown’s death, many Black Lives Matter activists reported symptoms of PTSD, depression, and anxiety. Regarding Ferguson, Jennifer Sumner, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at UCLA, stated, “Quite a large body of evidence suggests that both trauma exposure and PTSD are associated with developing a wide range of physical health disorders down the line.” Protesters even face an increased risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and dementia.

Activists in Hong Kong are voicing stories that are concerningly reminiscent of the struggles that protesters in Ferguson faced. A particularly harrowing case study comes in the form of activist “Catrina Ko,” a mid-20s protester who’s so immersed in the demonstrations in Hong Kong that she has lost a significant amount of weight and barely sleeps due to stress. Spending every waking moment translating news into English, publishing reports on civilian suicides, and distributing aid to frontline protesters, Ko admitted that she “could just drop dead over [her] laptop one day” because she practically never rests.

The demonstrations in Hong Kong may very well be the breaking point for a populace already burdened with an extremely concerning mental health situation.

Medical experts note that the citizens of Hong Kong were grappling with expensive and cramped living conditions, a cultural stigma surrounding discussions of mental illness, and a pessimistic view of the future prior to the city’s unrest. Considering the massive psychological and physical challenges that demonstrations brought to Hong Kong, it’s no wonder that activists are becoming despondent. Kayi Wong, a young designer in the city, opined, “It’s hard to see the future if there is no solution.”

This is a particularly worrying outlook for the young people of Hong Kong, who have been among the loudest voices of the demonstrations. In fact, nearly 60 percent of those protesting are 29 or younger. The Missouri-based Behavioral Health Response, an organization that provides resources to activists, reports that students have limited “real world” commitments and are thus free to immerse themselves fully in the social causes they believe in. Many students willingly demonstrate day and night, despite the massive repercussions they may face.

The statistics regarding physical injuries in Hong Kong are also staggering, with more than 80 percent of residents reported to have been exposed to tear gas. Police beatings, station rapes, and undue torture are heartbreakingly common stories. And recent protests have been marred by police threats to begin using live bullets against activists. But despite the very real and very pressing dangers involved in protest, demonstrations in Hong Kong regularly pull in two million supporters—out of a population of seven million. Clearly, the perceived benefits are worth the massive risk to Hong Kong’s youth.

China isn’t simply imposing on the city’s autonomy. It’s leaving millions of citizens with lasting psychological and physical trauma, effectively robbing Hong Kong of its optimism for a freer future. For every activist who pens a will before participating in a march, and for every child who calls a crisis hotline with symptoms of PTSD, we must realize that Hong Kong has become a war zone—and the lasting ramifications of that are as obvious as they are horrifying.

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Fiona Harrigan

Fiona Harrigan is a contributor for Young Voices and a political writer based in Tucson, Arizona.

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