The secret burden of mental illness in Hong Kong

Laurence Grant was 30 when he passed away last October.

Story highlights

  • Suicides in Asia make up 60% of the global total
  • One in six Hong Kong residents has a common mental disorder

Hong Kong (CNN)He just wanted help, but it proved much harder to find in Hong Kong than at home.

In one of the most densely populated areas in the world -- with many people working long hours, severe air pollution, skyrocketing home costs, strict schools and a fragile political climate -- at least one in six Hong Kong residents have a common mental disorder, such as anxiety, depression and psychotic disorders, according to two studies cited by Sherry Kit Wa Chan, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Hong Kong.
    Despite the numbers, Laurence Grant discovered that the amount of resources available to those in need of mental health support was not enough.
      In October, his girlfriend, Olivia Parker, found him dead in their Laos hotel from a mix of alcohol, sleeping pills, antidepressants and antipsychotic medicine.
      "In Hong Kong, there didn't seem to be an obvious place he could go to for help," Parker said, adding that there was no implication that his death was intentional.
      Olivia Parker and Laurence Grant were together for 4½ years.
      The depression hit like "black waves," starting when Grant was a teenager in the UK, she said. "He couldn't see anything else. He couldn't get out of it. He just felt like everything good was gone from this world."
        The two were together for 4½ years. They met in Scotland in 2012, three weeks before Grant left for Afghanistan, serving in the British army as a lieutenant and captain. When he came back to London in May 2013, they started dating again. She was drawn to "everything about him."
        "You could not ever be bored around him," Parker said. "He would just sweep everyone up in whatever he cared about. He could talk about anything with anyone. He was always the most happy when other people were happy."
        These waves became worse when Grant came back from Afghanistan. It was a tough transition from a high-risk environment to an office setting. He worked as a bid manager at the global accountancy firm KPMG, where people were stressed about things that had nothing to do with life and death.
        Grant and Parker decided on a fresh start and moved to Hong Kong in January 2017. They wanted to embark on a new adventure and maybe "leave some of what he was feeling behind," Parker said.
        But it "wasn't really a great tactic," she said.

        'Black waves' from the pressure

        Life in Hong Kong can be stark, with a culture of success and quick fixes. It's stressful for those working high-pressure jobs like Grant, who became a manager in cross-border client contracting for Deloitte.
        "He was constantly quite anxious about what he was doing there," said Parker, 30. He had a "tightness in his chest that wouldn't go away" with the "pressure to do the job really well."
        Not only does Hong Kong clock in with the most work hours per week globally -- more than 50, according to a study by UBS -- a reported 60% of residents experience stress and anxiety related to their jobs.
        Half of the respondents to a 2014 study by the Mental Health Association in Hong Kong felt that they had poor mental health.
        "We believe that it's a combination of the culture, the enormous pressure that people place on themselves to succeed and do well in a highly competitive, high-achieving system, the working hours and the fact that we live in a very cramped, urban environment," said Hannah Reidy, who runs the new mental health charity initiative Mind HK. "These problems start young, too: Children are feeling incredibly anxious, low and sometimes suicidal due to the pressure that they feel under to achieve what is expected of them."