In my work as partner of QNTM consulting, I often speak with leaders in well-being and management teams of Asian based companies looking to better support their workforces and support the UN’s Sustainability Development Goal #3 (SDGs) related to good health and well-being.
Working with stakeholders of all levels, my observation is that we are in an unprecedented time in which all of us -employees and employers alike- are feeling decreased happiness and fulfillment at work and in our lives. More and more, younger employees only want to work for companies that have a deeper organizational purpose which shapes that company’s culture.
Recent data corroborates my thesis. In a study conducted by AXA Mind Health released last month, which interviewed 11,000 individuals across 11 European and Asian countries (including Hong Kong), it was found that less than half of the participants had felt happy or experienced joy in the past year. While there were positive findings -35% of the participants thought the pandemic had made them more resilient- most participants were struggling to just “get by”.
I couldn’t help but think to myself, if this is the low happiness situation for adults (18+ – 75 years of age), how much worse must the situation be for more vulnerable groups, especially young people?
Upon further research, I found the data beyond discouraging. Cases of self-harm and suicide are skyrocketing globally. One study I read showed that suicide rates in children (ages 5-11) in the US are growing by 15% a year. These statistics are heartbreaking!
Certainly, the pandemic is not alone to blame. Combined with the normal difficulties of growing up, technology and social media are warping and distorting children’s sense of belonging and self-worth. The problem is especially acute for young women, who are particularly susceptible to feeling inadequate when comparing themselves to picture perfect images found on their social feeds.
According to an SCMP survey in 2020, here’s how Hong Kong women between 16-24 feel about themselves: 70% — “I’m too fat;” 63% — “I’m not satisfied with my appearance!”
How it must feel to live with a negative body image was highlighted for me in the story I read about Emily, which was featured in a 2021 Guardian article: “Teenage Girls, body image and Instagram’s ‘perfect storm.’” In it she shares her story- one that is becoming all too common. After joining Instagram in her mid-teens, she increasingly felt inadequate compared to the fitness influencers she followed. “I felt like my body wasn’t good enough, because even though I did go to the gym a lot, my body still never looked like the bodies of those influencers,” she said. Before the people who loved her even became aware of her plight so that they could intervene in a meaningful way, Emily had slipped into an eating disorder and had to enter treatment.
The story resonated with me because of my own personal experiences. As a father of a daughter myself, my heart aches for the families who fear for their daughter’s wellbeing.
I think back to my daughter growing up in Japan, thrilled to receive her first phone adorned with logo of her favorite Japanese pop singer Ayumi Hamasaki. At the time I didn’t think too much about getting it for her, after all it had limited capabilities (and of course was pre-Facebook and social media.)
Now an adult with a daughter of her own, my daughter faces a much harder decision of when to allow my granddaughter access to a phone. She understands the dangers that come with today’s smartphones and wants to keep her unexposed to all that for as long as possible. And who can blame her?
To many parents and loved ones, it can seem overwhelming to help our young people, particularly teenagers, manage the stresses that come with an increasing amount of technology platforms and inputs. Just how can we keep our young girls safe? What can we do to catch issues before they spiral into something worse (such as an eating disorder, depression, etc.)?
Communication is key
Based on my experience with my daughter, and in working with other young women in my job, I’ve found communication is key.
Through trial and error, I’ve developed a simple (informal) assessment tool to check in on how someone is doing.
It starts with analyzing 5 key factors to maintaining positive mental health:
1) Self- image (feeling good about oneself)
2) Self-confidence (sense of belonging in one’s surroundings & circumstances)
3) Relationships (family, friends, peers & colleagues)
4) Self-regulation (dealing with challenging emotions, thoughts and control)
5) Outlook on life (positivity about the future)
There are many ways you can go about discussing the above topics with a person you may be concerned about depending on your level of comfort, and theirs, and the particular situation.
One way is to have an informal conversation about the above topics. Check in with your young one and ask thoughtful questions (without judgement) to gauge how they are doing. Of course, it’s important to find the right time, the right place and to engage the other person in a dialogue that they voluntarily to choose to engage with you.
Another, slightly more formal way, is to ask your young person to give themselves a score as it relates to each of the topics, from 1-10 (1 being less satisfied, 10 being fully satisfied).
The point of scoring is not to give a comprehensive picture of your young person’s wellbeing. However, I believe it does tend to point out areas of concern and bring attention to areas where a kid may need more urgent help.
After discussing the results with your teen or young person there may be ways you can help them better manage. Sometimes support, encouragement, and listening with empathy can go a long way. Schedule a time (say 1 week from now, for instance) to check back in and see if there is improvement. Keep in mind that teens do have ups and downs, may not always want to talk about their issues, and may give completely different answers the next time. It’s up to you to stay calm, breathe and stay present, and try to get an overall picture over time.
There is no exact science to this. However, as you can probably surmise, if your teen has a lower score (say between 30-50), you may speak with your teen about an action plan and determine if professional help (ie. seeing a psychologist or therapist) would be a good idea.
One thing I’ve learned over the years is that while tools like the “5 key factors” may seem overly simple, it’s amazing how little we employ them. It’s my belief that as a first step to combat the negative trends with our youth, we must talk earlier and more often to keep the lines of communication open and to let them know that we care. Taking a step into their world and listening from a place without judgment will go a long way toward them feeling heard and being more willing to share with you when they are struggling.
Research and know your options for getting help
It’s also important to know when and where to seek professional help. Oftentimes, things can escalate quite quickly for parents and mentors. Luckily, Hong Kong does offer resources that can help.
In my experience, seeking the counsel of a therapist or psychiatrist, or sometimes even just a life coach, who is trained in dealing with developing youth is the best place to start.
Here are a few private professional care practices that offer psychology services in Hong Kong where you can learn more about the services they offer and their fee structures (this list is by no means comprehensive:
- Mindnlife HK
- Mindworx Mental Wellness
- Central Health
There are also a host of organizations, operating as not-for-profits in Hong Kong, that build supporting communities around helping young people with mental health. Sometimes meeting others who know what your child, your friend and yourself are going through can give you the strength you need to stay positive.
Here are two not-for-profit organizations I have worked with that I would recommend checking out, especially as it relates to helping young women.
1) Mind Hong Kong- Their mission “is to ensure no one in Hong Kong has to face a mental health problem alone.” Mind Hong Kong is a not-for-profit organization that is primarily focused on providing mental health education resources and working to remove the stigma associated with it in Hong Kong. Mind HK also sponsors the Hong Kong Eating Disorder Association, which provides dietetic and clinical psychological services (mind.org.hk).
2) Body Banter was founded by Stephanie Ng when she was in college. She and her team lead workshops and small-group sessions to empower young people Stephanie also works at Mind Hong Kong, and is a champion for empowerment for girls and women. (bodybanter.com).
Almost everyone I know has themselves been directly affected by, or knows someone who has suffered from, a mental health challenge. The challenges are many. Resilience is required in the face of continuous change and uncertainty, as the pandemic has taught us.
We’re in this fight for our collective well-being together. Through greater awareness and open communication, we can effectively address the mental health stigma and reduce the human and social costs in Hong Kong! My parting comment is that reducing our dependency on mobile phones, spending less time on social media and connecting more with others in conversation, would likely be a good first step.
About the author: Steve Hardacre’s vision is for Hong Kong to become a globally recognized benchmark of success in addressing pervasive mental health challenges. Achieving that, requires everyone’s participation, and a major shift in how we co-create solutions for major impact.
Steve is the co-founder of two Hong Kong based consultancies: QNTM Consulting and Game Changing Healthcare.
Both companies offer a Social Impact Accelerator program that helps organizations and individuals develop and implement social impact projects, including mental health, with three goals:
-contribute to society
-achieve financial and other outcomes for the organization
-develop the talent, skills and capabilities of participants
Email him at: email@example.com
Written exclusively for WELL, Magazine Asia by Steve Hardacre