Interview Hailey Wong, student intern at CSRP and Founder of Because Mental Health, shares her experiences regarding help-seeking as a secondary school student in Hong Kong
Interviewer: Let’s start by talking about your role as a Mental Health Leader. How often have your school peers come to you for help?
Hailey: Quite often. I’ve been seen as a “therapist friend” for a while now and I’m happy that I have a chance to help other people, especially the ones that go through the same things I go through.
I: That’s great! So, if a peer came up to you and told you they were feeling stressed, what would you think or feel? What would you do?
H: I advocate for reaching out for professional help, so a lot of the times when someone asks for help, I often try not to offer them a lot of advice, but instead give them a safe and secure place to rant their feelings out and empathize with them. There has a been a few times where my friends would come to me for friendship problems, academic stress, or overall negative wellbeing, and while I do offer some advice, I also try and sit in their shoes and talk it out with them. Whenever a person comes to me for help, I always am happy because I’m glad that they trust me with personal issues, and I’m always happy to help. I like offering them support and I believe that no one’s struggle is less valid than another.
I: Speaking of reaching out for help, when you yourself are feeling sad, distressed or under a lot of pressure and it is difficult to handle, do you try to seek help? Why or why not?
H: I talk to my therapists weekly, so when something happens, I’ll talk to her about it. However, I also journal whenever I’m not mentally doing well, and try to figure something out myself using different coping mechanisms.
I: What types of problems would you seek help for, and why?
H: I’ll seek help when I struggle with things that are within my control, such as my own mindset, wellbeing, and negative thoughts. There’s still a lot to learn about myself. I know that there are so many things that I need to work on in terms of my own self-development, and I strongly believe that therapy, or any type of professional help, can help me with channeling negativity differently and managing intrusive thoughts better.
I: Do you know who you can talk to and where to seek help?
H: I do have the privilege of knowing, though the process of looking for where to seek help was tough as I had to go to my parents first to let them know that I wanted professional support. (This was my main barrier for seeking-help in the very beginning – I struggled to open up to them about my mental health)
I: What kinds of difficulties did you face when you first started speaking to a professional?
H: Expressing emotions was a hard thing for me to do at the beginning, considering that I was opening up to a complete stranger. However, just after a few sessions, I felt comfortable talking to her about my feelings, and was able to express not only excitement and happiness but also frustration and anger. It was as if she were my live journal – I felt like I could tell her anything, without filtering out the ugly parts.
I: How does it compare with speaking to a peer? Do you prefer speaking with a professional or have a peer listener? Why?
H: It feels safer and more comfortable talking to a professional. Professionals are trained to know how to ask questions and guide the conversation forward to encourage self-discovery. It’s different from talking to my friends. I need to be able to fully trust that whatever I say stays between the two of us, and I feel more secure opening up in a therapist’s office. Therefore, personally I prefer speaking with a professional. However, for minor situations, like stressing over a Chinese test that we both need to take, I’ll talk to my friends instead since they are going through the exact same thing as I am.
I: Returning to school seems like a stressful time for students, especially during the pandemic. From your own experience or observation, could you tell us what major factors are affecting students’ emotions and stress around this time?
H: Firstly, the constant shift between online learning and in-person classes is a big factor. Once, we had our final exams a week after we went back to in-person school, and that negatively affected students’ mental health as it takes time to get back into the right mentality and settle back into school. Secondly, the amount of tests throughout the week. We can have an average of 3-5 tests per week when it’s test week, which can be a very heavy workload for students, especially those who also have ECAs after school. During the pandemic, I would have liked to see more understanding from the school, instead of trying to rush through syllabuses purely for the sake of catching up on lost time.
I: Have you noticed any differences in wellbeing before and after pandemic in different areas, like peer relationship, academics, family relationship, future path, belongingness in school, personal time (hobbies, extracurricular), personal wellbeing, or anything else?
H: In terms of extracurricular, I felt more passion towards the ECAs that I do because of the sudden stop in all activities due to COVID. Activities and athletic training sessions either went online or had gone to a stop completely, which really taught me a lesson of always being grateful for what you have in the present. In terms of relationships and belonging in school, I became more introverted after the pandemic (could also be because I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety during the pandemic, causing me to be more uptight and self-conscious when it came to my surroundings), which ultimately caused some friendships to drift apart slowly. I started liking being at home myself more than going out with my friends, and I have started to come up with excuses to skip hangouts.
I: Do you feel your school has shown support for student mental health? Have you attended any school activities about mental health?
H: I have not attended any school activities about mental health, but I have joined their compulsory talk about stress recently, which I felt negatively towards as I didn’t get much out of it. I believe that many existing activities are one-off in nature and are unable to get to the core of the issue. However, this only goes to show that schools lack resources for mental health initiatives, and I hope that the increase of mental health activism from students will change that soon. With that being said, there are a handful of teachers who really do care about students’ wellbeing and check on them occasionally through email.
I: Have you personally experienced or observed differences in help-seeking (like willingness or behavior) because of the pandemic?
H: I started seeing a therapist and psychiatrist amid the pandemic, so I definitely have a stronger professional support system now. It has always been a little difficult for me to open up to my friends, and there’s only one or two people that I would go to if I needed help (done mostly through text). However, throughout the pandemic, I resorted to journaling whenever I struggled as well. For me, it was an easier and more reliable way to rant. I could scribble, draw, or write however I wanted to, knowing that no one will ever see what I have written. It became my safe place.
I: Final question – what could be improved or changed to make you even more willing to seek help if you needed it?
H: I think knowing that we cannot compare personal struggles with one another is important. Our own struggles can be the smallest thing to someone else, but could also be the most traumatic thing to ourselves. I believe that if I had learnt this earlier on, I would have been able to be more comfortable in being open about my own struggles. I believe that changing your own inner circle into one that opens up and talks about their feelings a lot is also important. When you grow up in an environment where there are open, honest and transparent conversations, it will also indirectly influence you to do the same as well.