Nearly a quarter of Hong Kong students have developed symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, raising concerns about the mental wellbeing of young people, a new study from the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) has found.

children sport class education school student
Photo: GovHK.

The study from CUHK and the Hong Kong Association of Careers Masters and Guidance Masters was designed to examine the correlation between emotional well-being and digestive health. It also found that 10 per cent of the 232 parents interviewed also displayed IBS symptoms, signalling a rise in mental health problems.

Anxiety and depression symptoms

The survey interviewed 232 parents and 324 secondary school students in April. It showed that nearly 25 per cent of students had moderate to severe IBS symptoms, including abdominal pain, bloating and diarrhoea, which may affect their ability to learn, to work and to take part in social activities – significantly undermining their quality of life.

Almost 50 per cent of students and more than 20 per cent of parents interviewed were showing mild to severe symptoms of depression, while more than 40 per cent of students were showing mild to severe anxiety symptoms.

“Serotonin in the brain affects our mood and gut. People with symptoms of stomach disorders, IBS, or bowel diseases will also have a higher risk of depression and anxiety, and vice versa,” said Professor Justin Wu, from the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, Department of Medicine and Therapeutics at CUHK.

The results show that parents and children influence one another, with respondents from the same family tending to share similar symptoms of IBS and emotional problems.

According to Dr. Esther Ho, chairperson of the Hong Kong Association of Careers Masters and Guidance Masters, students and parents lacked social activities and support during the pandemic last year while students were forced to learn from home .

Prof. Justin Wu (left), Yawen Chen (centre), and Dr. Esther Ho (right) of CUHK.
Prof. Justin Wu (left), Yawen Chen (centre), and Dr. Esther Ho (right) of CUHK. Photo: CUHK.

Ho said students had no outlet for the pressure that arose from remote learning.

Yawen Chan, a clinical psychologist from CUHK, said the prevalence of moderate to severe mental health issues in adolescents and adults was not surprising but nevertheless “alarming.”

“The waiting time for public clinical service is long,” she said. “The mental health support in Hong Kong may not be able to meet such demand.”

Since 2019, experts have warned of a “mental health” crisis due to widespread protests that rocked the city. Sparked by a now-shelved extradition bill, they morphed into a larger pro-democracy protest movement that resulted in often violent clashes in the city.

CUHK Esther Ho Yuk-fun
Dr. Esther Ho, chairperson of Hong Kong Association of Careers Masters and Guidance Masters. Photo: CUHK.

After the pandemic sent students into lockdown, forcing them to adapt to working from home, experts have warned that the mental health crisis among young people could be exacerbated by prolonged isolation.

“Prevention and early intervention are important. Noticing and understanding, instead of denying one’s own stress and emotional change can help one to identify the problem earlier,” Chan said. “That’s why mental health education and mindfulness [are] important.”

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Rhea is a Hong Kong-based journalist interested in gender issues and minority rights, whose work has appeared in a number of publications across Asia. She is also on the 2019 Diversity List: a list of ethnic minorities that are qualified and committed to serve on Hong Kong government committees.