An experienced educator and cognitive behavioural therapist, Minal founded OCD & Anxiety Support Hong Kong to provide much-needed aid to people battling with mental health issues

Minal Mahtani was in the midst of a successful teaching career when she went through her personal experience with anxiety. She was in her late 20s when she lost three extended members of her family within a short period of time. “I started to experience panic attacks,” she recalls. “And I really didn’t know what was happening to me. Family members wanted me to snap out of it and told me that death was just a part of life, but I couldn’t.”

After going through a process of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT)— a transforming experience that pushed her to become a cognitive behaviour therapist herself—Minal was determined to investigate how anxiety cases were being treated, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds in Hong Kong. 

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“Here, 71 percent of people who go see doctors for mental health issues get given medication, whereas only 6.7 percent actually get psychotherapy or a type of therapy suited for their anxiety disorder,” she says.

“In the public health system, if someone needed help, that person would have to be screened by a government doctor, and need to wait anywhere between 18 to 24 months to get an appointment. In that time, if your anxiety disorder is severe, you could have already have taken your life.”   

Her experience with anxiety, and knowing that she could help, led Minal to start OCD & Anxiety Support Hong Kong in 2014, giving individuals with anxiety disorder and OCD have a place to get support and connect with people who have similar experiences.

What kind of services does OCD and Anxiety Disorders Hong Kong offer?

We do a lot of activities to raise awareness. We run the Green Ribbon Campaign on Mental Health Day, where our volunteers and I hand out green ribbons in support of people with mental health problems. Our objective is to get people talking about mental health and eliminate the stigma around it.

We provide information on psychologists and psychiatrists in Hong Kong while offering support to sufferers and caregivers. We have a support group meeting once a month for people to share and connect with others who are going through the same struggles.

As a cognitive behaviour therapist, I work with caregivers of those who have mental health disorders to teach them stress management. I go to schools and corporations to give talks, and we’ve done research on the ground as well.

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What kind of studies has the group done around mental health?

We’ve just completed a study revealing the shocking state of mental health awareness in the workplace. An alarming 99 out of 164 participants in the study said there were no measures in their workplace to raise awareness about mental illness or offer support.

This is very disappointing since we know that mental health in the workplace is so important. In Hong Kong, work hours average of 51.1 hours per week, compared to a global average of 36.4 hours. That’s 38  percent more time spent in the office.

What’s next for the organisation?

We are in the process of being recognised by the Hong Kong government as a full-fledged charity, and when that comes through we will be able to accept donations. It’s always been my dream as well to have a treatment centre—a cosy, in-patient facility for people to come and be treated.

What can people do to help?

First, keep talking about mental health—if you’re stressed or struggling, voice it. Release it. Let someone know, and perhaps you may be able to help another person who is suffering.

Second, get in touch with us and volunteer your time. We have several projects coming up for World Mental Health Day including workshops and walkathons. If people have time to spare, or can offer their skills—whether its translation work, marketing or web design—we are always looking for help.

Third, educate yourself. Get someone from OCD and Anxiety Disorder Support Hong Kong to come to your school or your office to host a talk.

What is the most significant aspect of your role? 

To be able to connect with people and have them walk out of our centre with a tiny glimmer of hope in their eyes, making a new friend, and having spoken about something that was bothering them. It really makes a huge difference. It's very satisfying.

How do you feel about being nominated for this year’s Women of Hope Awards?

I am super honoured and humbled. I am truly grateful to the community to be recognised for the work that we are doing. My mother has always been the one who has taught us, her children, to serve. She was still alive when I first started OCD & Anxiety Support Hong Kong, and when I had doubts about myself and what the organisation could do, she encouraged me.

For me, my mum was my woman of hope. She would be happy to see me and my sister (Shalini) nominated this year. As a family, we’ve been very committed to serving the Hong Kong community. This is my home and I want to continue to give back. This isn’t really a job for me. It’s my passion, it’s where my heart is.

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