Online consultations with psychiatrists can significantly help those with mental health issues as they are more accessible to patients, a University of Hong Kong pilot programme has found.

A secondary teacher holding an online zoom lesson in an empty classroom. File photo: May James/HKFP.

During a press briefing on Monday, HKU’s Department of Psychiatry said it had reached over 1,600 people through a programme providing online psychiatry sessions and follow-up services since November 2020.

Among them, 58 per cent were considered to be at “significant risk of mental disorder,” and most participants had never seen a psychiatrist before.

Eric Chen from the department of psychiatry said there were multiple barriers preventing people from seeking clinical help with mental health issues, including societal stigma, long waiting lists for public services, financial burden and the disruption to services due to Covid-19 infections, lockdowns and related policies.

To address these concerns, the HKU programme Headwind provides free online consultations with professional psychiatrists. Chen said the approach could make participants feel that their privacy was better protected, as they are not required to show their faces. Meetings could also be arranged within one or two days.

The University of Hong Kong. File photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Speaking at the same press conference, Chan Kai-tai, a clinical associate professor, said they followed up with 112 participants three months after their consultations and saw “significant” improvement in their mental health.

According to Chan, the ratio of those who were considered in severe mental health distress had dropped from 58 per cent to 30.8 per cent after speaking with psychiatrists. A control group recorded a decrease of 43.1 per cent.

Chan said he hoped that the results of the pilot programme could be used as a reference to help provide access to those in need.

Young people most susceptible

Almost half – 49.6 per cent – of the programme’s participants were aged between 15 and 24.

Chan said mental and emotional issues generally emerged in one’s younger years. He said the impact of Covid-19 on people’s mental health was “indirect but significant,” as they were affected by various pandemic control measures. For example, students were not able to meet their classmates and teachers due to classes being online, which would affect their social growth.

Empty school scFile photo: Tom Grundy.

While the programme found that stress was most frequently attributed to study, work, or relationships, Chen said that external factors, including the pandemic and protests, as well as factors unique to each individual, also played a role.

Michael Wong, a clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry, said during Monday’s press briefing that he saw around 600 students in the programme and many told him that they had issues with online classes.

“Basically [they] learn nothing, but before they can pick it up, they will have to study new things [when school reopens],” Wong said.

Correction 13/4/2022: An earlier version of the story stated that Eric Chen was the head of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Hong Kong. He is in fact Chi-Li Pao Foundation professor in psychiatry, chair and clinical professor in psychiatry in the department.

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Peter Lee

Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.