Sania Yau, CEO of New Life Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association, has revamped Hong Kong’s approach to mental-health treatment
Hong Kong projects itself as a fast-paced and frenetic city. But for people caught up in the stresses and strains of everyday life – whether building a career, swotting for exams, getting deals done, or simply striving to make ends meets and raise a family – there is another side to the story which still gets too little attention.
The plain fact is that around one in seven people in Hong Kong have, at one time or another, suffered from depression, anxiety, insomnia, stress-related disorders or more serious conditions such as bipolarism and schizophrenia. And hard as this is for the individuals concerned, the effects can also have a severe impact on the lives of family members, friends and colleagues.
“That’s why we say mental health is everybody’s business,” says Sania Yau, CEO of New Life Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association, a local NGO which has, for 50 years, provided essential care and support. “We have around 1,000 staff currently serving about 18,000 people in recovery from mental illness, with a range of facilities and community-based services, depending on the level of support required.”
These include hostels, half-way houses and long-stay residential homes for the chronically or seriously ill who may need lifelong care. There are successful social enterprises, including cafes, food factories and a farm, to help people back into the workplace. And, in collaboration with the commercial sector and relevant government departments, there are ongoing initiatives to raise awareness, change lifestyles and thereby reduce the risks of onset.
None of that, though, was part of Yau’s original career plan. After graduating from the University of Hong Kong in 1983 with a degree in social work and psychology, she had hopes of becoming a probation officer, an idea partly inspired by a popular TV series of the time about getting ex-convicts and drug addicts back on track.
With that in mind, she joined the Social Welfare Department, and was somewhat dismayed when assigned instead to work in an outpatient clinic for people with mental health problems and in recovery.
“At the time, I had my own bias and sense of stigma,” Yau says. “I faced pressure from my family to do something else, and even remember waking up screaming after a nightmare about being chased by a patient around the Peak. I had decided to quit, but spoke to the supervisor, who was on sick leave with cancer. She counselled me on the importance of mental health work in the community, of giving people in recovery an opportunity and giving myself a chance to fully understand the area. After a struggle, I chose to stay – that was 33 years ago.”
Growing up in Mong Kok, Yau attended an all-girls school which encouraged a social conscience and offered psychology classes for senior students. This inspired her long-term interest in human behaviour.
Her father was a small-scale businessman, resilient, family-minded, humble and entrepreneurial too, as one of the first to set up a factory across the border in China. Her mother was a housewife, always insistent on the importance of getting a good education, something she herself had missed out on. They were very traditional, yet typical of the people who built Hong Kong and set it on the path to the economic prosperity enjoyed today.
Once committed to her field, Yau spent 10 years as a frontline clinician working in hospitals and outpatient centres, while advising on problems encountered by schools, families and in the wider community.
Then in 1993, having moved to Toronto for family reasons, she branched out, running her own private practice as a therapist and doing some teaching. Importantly, she also worked for a community centre, making home visits to people in more deprived neighbourhoods, who had no easy access to mainstream services.
In Canada she also came across the “consumer movement” where mental health patients wanted to speak more about their rights, their diagnosis and medication, and the level of advocacy they thought they should have.
“That changed the way I saw community services, and I thought it was something to bring back to Hong Kong,” she says. “When I joined New Life in 1996, clients here didn’t know much about what they were suffering from or their treatment. I felt they had to be at the centre of the process, so I started to ‘incubate’ my ideas with a view to making a real difference to changing existing practices.”
She started as a social work supervisor, responsible for staff training and development plus some clinical services. This evolved into a number of special projects designed to improve all-round services. The process of change accelerated when she became chief executive in 2009.
Her stated aim was to expand the organisation’s vision and mission. This was done by looking at the system rather than just the symptoms and focusing on recovery-oriented practices. It also involved trying to influence the Hospital Authority, NGOs, and partners in the commercial sector to address the stigmas around mental health by promoting social inclusion.
That was not all though. Along the way, she also sought to identify gaps in the services currently provided, put more emphasis on research work and evidence-based practices, and create a platform to improve communication and the sharing of ideas.
“It has been an exciting journey, taken with the support of the team here,” Yau says. “I’ve learned that leadership has to be contextual and very respectful. You look to each other’s strengths and have to balance a democratic style with being more ‘top down’ or authoritarian when that is needed. The key thing always is to involve people, listen to ideas, get buy-in, and be ready to empower.”
PEACE OF MIND
Sania Yau’s pointers for better mental health in the workplace.
Pairing principles “We would like to see more shared values between social services and those in the commercial sector. Therefore, we are trying to develop the concept of corporate social integration, so that businesses make mental health considerations part of their long-term planning. This can relate to areas like work-life balance. By learning to ‘integrate’ work with other activities, it is possible to make life less stressful. It comes down to attitude and values.”
Anticipating, not reacting “We have different layers of care for people with a diagnosis. Overall, though, prevention is better than cure, so it makes sense to allocate resources – using an ‘inverted triangle’ model – with that in mind.”
Winning with wellness “All of us have ups and downs, but if we focus more on general well-being, it helps to move away from the line that can mark the onset of mental health distress.”
Boosting learning “Basically, we still have to make the system more humanitarian and continue education initiatives in the wider community.”
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Caring and mindful.