Cover Yvette Kong (Photo: Supplied)

Former athlete Yvette Kong is a founding board member of Mind Hong Kong, a charity dedicated to destigmatising mental health issues in Hong Kong and beyond. She reveals some surprising mental health statistics and shares her hopes for the future of Hong Kong

Envision is a series designed to bring hope to Hongkongers amid the uncertainty and isolation of the pandemic. Each week, we publish letters of encouragement and messages of positivity from the city’s most influential leaders in the realms of art, culture, business and sport. These deeply personal, first-person accounts from the community can be read as love letters to Hong Kong. In these trying times, the series inspires and serves as a reminder that we’re all in this together, and that we will bounce back stronger than ever.

In any sport, the amount of physical work involved to be great, especially on an international level, is tremendous. But the required mental fortitude is often overlooked when it comes to appraising performance. “Sport is 90 per cent mental and 10 per cent physical,” goes the famous quote, originally attributed to baseball pro Yogi Berra. The field of sport psychology and the conversation around mental health in sport have been brought increasingly into the spotlight, thanks to prominent athletes like Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and Michael Phelps speaking about the importance of prioritising mental wellbeing, giving exposure to a topic once considered taboo.

Closer to home, Olympic swimmer Yvette Kong is doing her part to get people taking mental health as a whole, but especially in sport, more seriously. After representing Hong Kong at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, Kong knows first-hand the extreme pressure athletes endure.

Her experience as an athlete, combined with her degree in cognitive science from the University of California, Berkeley, fuelled the 29-year-old’s dedication to mental health. She is a board member of Mind Hong Kong and has given presentations for Tedx Hong Kong and the University of Hong Kong on the subject.

Kong says the situation in Hong Kong is particularly dire, intensified by the most recent wave of the pandemic. She cites a survey by Mind Hong Kong this year, which found over 60 per cent of adults aged 25 to 34 reported poor mental health. “Can you imagine what our growth opportunity would be if we saw recent challenges as a leap towards healthier awareness? Can [taking care of our] mental health be a huge source of our city’s untapped potential?” Kong asks.

Read her diary entry below about why she feels Hong Kong must prioritise mental wellbeing, and why she is optimistic that the city will be changed for the better post-pandemic.

April 21, 2022

Hong Kong has been underwater for a while, and its underlying problems are surfacing. Mental health is one of them. As a former athlete trained to weather uncertainty and pressure, I, too, admit being fatigued. Wave after wave of [Covid-19] has dried out my feistiness. As a 20-something-year-old, I’ve wondered what the future of Hong Kong will hold while believing that future generations will uphold the city’s strength. Our current catalyst for change has been going on for nearly three years now, and the strain is all too real. This once-bustling city feels burnt out.

Mind Hong Kong commissioned a survey of 1,000 randomly selected adults between March 17 and 29 to determine the impact of Covid-19 on mental health and access to mental health support for Hong Kong citizens during the fifth wave. The research shows that the city has never been through this large of a crisis before. It emerged that 37 per cent of respondents stated that their mental health had worsened since January. Additionally, 49 per cent of respondents showed mild to severe depression symptoms, and 41 per cent showed mild to severe anxiety symptoms. It’s worrying that the situation is even worse among young adults aged 25 to 34, with over 60 per cent reporting poor mental wellbeing.

The staggering statistics are symptoms of a bigger issue. The city’s mental health crisis is further challenged by cultural stigmas and the shortage of mental health services. Around half of respondents who have been diagnosed with a mental health problem reported that they had never disclosed their problem to anyone before, highlighting the stigma around mental health in Hong Kong. The results also reflect a shortage of online and low-cost professional support tools, with the main barrier to accessing mental health support being a lack of available services.

Mental health is public health. Even before the onset of the social unrest and the pandemic, mental health was already an everyday stigma impeding the full potential of what this city could achieve. This isn’t sustainable. Our extraordinarily resilient city has been breathing underwater.

But Hong Kong shouldn’t fear change. When we hit what we think is rock bottom, the only option is to paddle up. The goal is not to go back to the state Hong Kong once was but to emerge transformed – citius, altius, fortius [faster, higher, stronger] – in unity. Our ship sails away from the past into  vast ocean of infinite future possibilities.

What will Hong Kong metamorphose into in five or ten years? We may not have an easy answer for this. At the very least, I know that a seed of tenacity has been cultivated in me [towards tackling the issue of mental health in Hong Kong].

Growing up on Hong Kong soil, having experiences with adversity, and needing to take care of my mental health unleashed it further. Can you imagine what our growth opportunity would be if we saw the recent challenges as a chance to leap towards awareness of our health? Can [taking care of our] mental health be a huge source of our city’s untapped potential?

Hong Kong is incredibly strong. I felt a gush of energy every time I put on my Bauhinia-printed swimming cap: unwavering, confident, and powerful. Off the blocks, this boost [of representing my city] sends me gliding above the water. —Yvette Kong



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