'Unprecedented' mental health issues seen in Hong Kong amid virus fears

By Farah Master

HONG KONG, March 3 (Reuters) - As Hong Kong tries to contain the coronavirus outbreak, medical experts say many in the Asian financial hub are reeling from increased anxiety and an unprecedented level of mental health issues.

The SARS-CoV-2 epidemic came after months of tumultuous anti-government protests that had already led to a sharp increase in depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), they said.

It also touches on fears of the 2003 SARS epidemic, which killed nearly 300 people in the city.

"Hong Kong is in a unique position, due to changes to our routine, previous months of social unrest and deep memories of SARS," said Carol Liang, an executive at Mind Hong Kong, a mental health charity in the former British colony.

A University of Hong Kong survey found that a third of adults in the special administrative region reported symptoms of PTSD, up from 2 percent in 2015, while 11 percent reported depression, up from 2 percent during the Occupy protests in 2014.

Since January, tens of thousands have been working from home, many cooped up in tiny apartments, while the stockpiling of basic food and cleaning products has become common.

Children stuck at home must grapple with online learning while many families, particularly the poor, are unable to get protective gear because.

"Hoarding tissue, bags of rice, are measures to cope with the anxiety rather than fulfilling needs of daily life. They are hoarding way beyond their only needs," said Eliza Cheung, a clinical psychologist at Hong Kong Red Cross.

Hong Kong has about 100 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and has reported two deaths.

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A mental health hotline the government opened in January has received about 25,000 calls, authorities said, while voluntary groups have sprung into action to help counsel people, particularly those quarantined at home.

"We have everyone calling from the entire spectrum, elderly from the nursing home to teenagers. We are just trying to hang onto each day as it is at the moment," said Karman Leung, chief executive of Samaritans Hong Kong, a local non-governmental organisation that assists people in distress.

Story continues

Low-income residents have been particularly hurt by a deepening slowdown in Hong Kong's economy, battered by protests and the Sino-U.S. trade war.

The Society for Community Organisation (SoCO), a local organisation that works on poverty alleviation, said 70 percent of poor families can't afford masks and disinfectant.

Authorities have pledged cash handouts to residents and tax breaks to businesses. Last week, the city's finance secretary unveiled measures to allocate "sufficient resources" to help with mental health problems.

Some residents remain optimistic.

"This virus, I thought it came at a good time, where we are so divided. Hopefully it will bring us together again. Each one of us hopefully trying to fight this disease," said Derek Au, 46, a Hong Kong resident. (Reporting by Farah Master; additional reporting by Aleksander Solum in Hong Kong. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

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