Global slowdown to take heavy toll on mental health

Chiu Hei-chun spent 50 years washing dishes at a roadside stall in Hong Kong only to lose his life savings when Lehman Brothers went belly up.

“I saved it (HK$520 000) bit by bit. It was meant for my wife and I, for our medical bills and our coffins after we die so we won’t have to bother our children,” the 72-year-old said.

“HK$20 000 of that belongs to my wife and she hasn’t been talking to me. I used to get four hours’ sleep a night, but I haven’t even been getting an hour a night after this happened.”

The global financial meltdown has hit not only pockets. Greater numbers of people are suffering from insomnia, anxiety and depression and psychiatrists say suicide rates may creep up.

“There is a lot of insomnia, depression and anxiety. More people are depressed with the money they have lost, worried about the security of their jobs and the financial situation of their families,” said Dominic Lee, a psychiatrist in Hong Kong who counts investment bankers among his patients.

Experts say the situation will get much worse when the impact seeps down further and people with fewer savings than investment bankers begin to lose their jobs as companies cut back due to an expected credit crunch.

“If people start losing their jobs and unemployment rates rise, it would be even more serious,” said Paul Yip, director of the Hong Kong Jockey Club Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention at the University of Hong Kong.

“People who are unemployed are six to 30 times more likely to kill themselves,” he said.

In Japan, the number of suicides leapt to 32 863 in 1998, compared with 24 391 in 1997—a development blamed on a rising tide of bankruptcies after Japan’s economic bubble burst.

It has stayed over 30 000 a year since then. Studies have shown suicide in Japan is strongly linked to unemployment.

Suicide, disease
Suicide figures in Hong Kong rose 50% from 12 per every 100 000 people in 1997, when the Asian financial crisis hit, to 18 per 100 000 in 2003, the year of the Sars epidemic.

“The worst is yet to come. People committed suicide in the past after constant harassment by debt collectors. We haven’t seen that, but when the credit crunch in the consumer market happens, we will see an increase in suicide rates,” Lee said.

Physical well-being is also an area of concern.

“There is a lot of evidence that stress and depression can affect physical health. Stress can affect a lot of conditions like asthma, stroke and cardiovascular disease. They are more connected than we tend to believe,” Lee said.

In Hong Kong, the government set up round-the-clock crisis hotlines for those with “emotional and family problems” this week. Calls are answered by social workers and face-to-face counselling will be provided if needed.

At least 43 700 people in Hong Kong are known to have paid HK$20,2-billion ($2,6-billion) for Lehman-related products. Of these, 33 600 paid HK$11,9-billion for minibonds.

Chiu used to keep his money in fixed deposits but he bought Lehman products three years ago after a bank staff member assured him it was safe. “I told the staff I knew nothing and that I was putting full trust in her,” the old man said.

Asked about the financial situation, Sayoko Yamamoto, a 59-year-old company employee in Japan said: “People will be worried about their old age, and it’s really hard to find a way of dealing with these problems yourself.”

“There are a lot of reasons to worry and I think many people really don’t know what to do.” - Reuters

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