Suicide cases hit ’extremely high’ levels in Hong Kong: HKU estimate

Social work professor Paul Yip said estimated suicide cases hit “extremely high” levels in Hong Kong. (Photo: The University of Hong Kong)
Social work professor Paul Yip said estimated suicide cases hit “extremely high” levels in Hong Kong. (Photo: The University of Hong Kong)

An expert from the University of Hong Kong (HKU) has called for the reopening of recreational facilities and more care for the elderly as estimated suicide cases hit “extremely high” levels in Hong Kong.

His comments came as the ”Suicide Prevention Early Warning System” — developed by HKU’s HKJC Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention — issued a warning on March 23, which indicates that the estimated number of suicide cases in the past seven days on average has exceeded the “extremely high” level.

In a press conference on Tuesday, Paul Yip, the center’s director, noted it is the first time the warning system has been triggered since it was set up in 2020.

The model gathers and analyzes suicide cases from official sources as well as media reports, and uses machine learning techniques to estimate the total number of suicide cases per day.

The seven-day moving average estimate of suicide cases exceeded the crisis level (black line) on March 20. (Photo: The University of Hong Kong)

According to the model, the seven-day moving average estimate of cases exceeded the crisis level of suicide risk — 3.56 per day — on March 20, even hitting 4.05 on March 21.

The average for the year is 1.8.

Yip also noted that there were 21 suicide cases reported in the media for the week ending on Monday, meaning there was an average of three a day.

The age group with the highest number of cases is 65 and above with eight. The next highest are 35-44 and 45-54 with four each.

The main reported reasons are related to finances and health issues.

“Social distancing [measures] have introduced not only physical distancing but also emotional disconnectedness. I think it’s this emotional disconnectedness that leads to the sense of isolation, a sense of being abandoned by family members or by community. It has an adverse impact on our mental health,” said Yip.

The rising trend in estimated suicide cases coincided with a particularly severe phase of Hong Kong’s fifth wave of the COVID-19, when daily infection rose to above 50,000.

It also came at a time when social distancing measures tightened, including a ban on multi-household private gatherings.

The city’s unemployment rate also recently rose to a five-month high of 4.5 percent.

Though the estimated cases have dipped, Yip urged the public to take initiative to care for people around them, especially the elderly, and for authorities to relax certain social distancing measures.

”Without increasing the risk of infection, we need to reopen recreational facilities as soon as possible to promote the mental well-being of the public,” said the professor.

Yip said there are ways to balance fighting the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuring the mental well-being of the public.

”For example, we can open beaches in the morning for the elderly to do a morning swim,” he said, adding the beaches can be closed in the afternoon to prevent large numbers of people gathering.

Vincent Ng and Justin Leung from Suicide Prevention Services urged authorities to relax some coronavirus measures to allow elderly to meet their family members.

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