More than 10 per cent of Hongkongers have experienced symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) a year after the city was hit by Covid-19 in early 2020, a Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) study has shown.

Hong Kong resident riding on the MTR during the fifth wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

A research team at the Faculty of Health and Social Sciences revealed on Wednesday that 12.4 per cent of the 3,011 people they surveyed between December 2020 and February 2021 had displayed signs of trauma including intrusion, avoidance and hyper-arousal.

The telephone survey targeting Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong residents aged 18 or above indicated that respondents who were unemployed, or had no personal income, and those with a lower educational attainment, were “associated with higher levels of psychological trauma.”

The PolyU scholars compared the survey result with another study on PTSD published by three Hong Kong academics in May 2020. They found that traumatic symptoms were less prevalent among the respondents in the current study, which was funded by the Health and Medical Research Fund of the Food and Health Bureau.

“It is possible that people are becoming ‘numb’ in response to the uncertainty and uncontrollability associated with the continuous and repeated occurrence of local outbreaks,” the research team led by neuropsychology Professor David Shum said.

Hong Kong government imposes compulsory testing order in a housing estate in Tin Shui Wai on May 25, 2022. Photo: GovHK.

Exposure to news reports about the Covid-19 pandemic was said to be a factor affecting psychological distress. Greater time spent watching news about the outbreak was associated with more serious PTSD symptoms, the study found, though it also signified a higher rate of compliance with anti-epidemic measures.

“[T]o protect their mental health, [citizens] should avoid repetitively watching or listening to the same content,” the research findings published in the BMC Psychiatry journal last month read. The PolyU team reminded people to verify Covid-19 information before sharing it with family members and friends.

Elderly also vulnerable

The research team also conducted in-depth interviews with 31 elderly people aged 65 or above between November 2020 and February 2021 to understand the mental state of the senior population in light of the pandemic.

Elderly people queue up for vaccination. File Photo: GovHK.

Most of the respondents, with close to 70 per cent being retirees, said they were “worried, helpless and sullen” under the pandemic, as many suspended their usual activities and avoided going out for exercise.

Shum warned that, if the elderly continued to live under stress brought on by the pandemic, it could lead to long-term mental health issues. He urged the public to “face the PTSD symptoms squarely” and pay attention to any physical, emotional and psychological changes.

See also: HKFP’s comprehensive guide to mental health services in Hong Kong

“Society is heading towards ‘normalisation.’ The mental health of citizens must ‘normalise’ as well,” he said.

On Wednesday, Hong Kong registered 251 new Covid-19 infections and added two related deaths. So far, the city has recorded more than 1.2 million cases, while the death toll surpassed 9,370.

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Kelly Ho

Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.