To those who are depressed and struggles to seek help
The Hong Kong society seems to be more open on the discussion of the mental illness, but this topic still remains as a taboo for daily conversation. The stigmatization of the mental illness makes people to avoid talking about it, but we need to stop this. We need to start talking about it. We need to stop this stigma from holding people back to get help. That’s why I’m writing this to break the silence by giving my story a voice.
I was diagnosed with Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and a tendency of depression about two years ago. I was struggling with ADHD at schools and in daily life for more than 10 years. The issues of inattention and hyperactivity haunted me for such a long period of time, deep down, those issues must have terribly crushed my mind and soul.
I can vaguely remember I started to have symptoms of depression and suicidal thoughts since secondary school, but I didn’t seek help. One of the reasons was the older generations’d like to say “others have it worse”, so I shouldn’t magnify this teeny-tiny problems because there are starving children in Africa. Also, I should not showing any emotions, like crying, because they say it’s “a sign of weakness”. The invalidation of emotions didn’t make me feel better, so I subconsciously repressed my sadness and those suicidal thoughts every time I experienced them. But it just made it worse. It likes dumping bags of emotions and stuffing them into a room. I never cleaned them and it became a big pile of repressed emotions, until one day, the room didn’t have enough space and it exploded. But still, I didn’t seek help.
The self-doubt which have been existed for years finally erupted and broke me down, after the release of GPA for the first semester in the community college. The feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness and helplessness started to creep in and hit my self- image hard. I just couldn’t bear the emotion pain that hid inside my body, I needed something, or anything to make the waves of painful feelings go away. So I decided to hurt myself. Self-harm was my go-to coping skill, and later it became a ritual, an addiction. I couldn’t stop myself, that’s when I realized I really needed help.
Choosing recovery isn’t easy, nobody said it was easy. But it’s possible and I’m glad that I made that decision, because I’m alive, my heart is still beating and I’m still breathing. If I didn’t seek the professional help from my school counsellor and my psychiatrist, I wouldn’t be here today to share my story, to encourage you to reach out. They helped me through the first two years of this purgatory of depression. I’m still recovering and there’s long way ahead. My condition is unstable sometimes, but I’m a better me than the one two years ago. Recovery is possible for me, so it’s for you.
Some of you may have experienced the battle with your own mind. The self-inflicting thoughts held you back from reaching for professional help, saying things like “self-harm won’t kill” or “you don’t deserve help”. But you are not. You deserve help. You worth it. I understand how difficult to admit you have a problem, to admit that you need someone’s help, but it’s all okay. It’s okay not to be okay. It’s okay to reach for help. I know recovery is not easy because you have to choose the choice over and over again, but it is possible. I know all these because I’ve been there, just like many other people who are struggling with depression in this world. Remember, you will never be alone.
A 20-something university student. Proud ADHDer.
Studied psychology at community college and fell in love with it.
Advocate breaking the stigma of mental illness in the Hong Kong society
加拿大麥基爾大學 (McGill University)
My Insights to Hong Kong Education
I have left Hong Kong’s social environment when I was about 14 years old. Before I left, I was studying in an international school. I just finished Grade 9 when I switched to a boarding school in Canada. Upon reaching Canada, I have realized a significant difference in the emphasis of education and family. While I am not residing in Hong Kong anymore, I still have family here so I still read current news in Hong Kong. As a doctoral student studying educational psychology, I am interested in students’ psychological well-being. In the past few years, there have been many students in Hong Kong dying by suicide. Here are some of my observations during my visits to Hong Kong.
I would like to highlight the emphasis of education in Hong Kong. During my one month visit in Hong Kong, I felt an incredible amount of pressure to achieve the unachievable. Even though I am not a high school or undergraduate student, just reading and listening to all the expectations from the society and families was too much. It was getting to my head but I am fortunate enough to be able to leave Hong Kong for my schooling. This can’t be said for other students who have to endure such societal pressures. When star performers and DSE exam grades were talked about in the South China Morning Post, it gave me the perception that this is what local families perceive is to be the standard. On one hand, providing the background of the students who have had unfortunate pasts can enhance the self-esteem and belief for future students to understand that it is still a possibility to do well despite their circumstances. On the other hand, it is possible to perceive these events in a negative, self-pitying light for current students who did not accomplish equally as well. While I was reading the news on these students, I kept on wondering if there were any examples of students who achieved average grades, but who were equally capable of getting accepted into their program of interest. In Canada, I work with students with various difficulties, such as autism, dyslexia, ADHD, and anxiety disorders. My students may not be able to achieve such perfect grades, but they themselves have their personal goals in mind that shape their interests. Most of them understand that their grades may not be able to get them into the most idealistic school, but we create more proximal SMART goals that are realistically, more achievable than achieving perfect scores.
One of the interesting ideas I have encountered here in Hong Kong is the illusion of stability in specific jobs. For example, doctors, lawyers, accountants, businessmen and women, and engineers, are all job fields that I have heard being recommended over and over. Yet, these job areas have an abundant amount of stress that come along with it that is not equally brought up in social media. Current students need to understand that social comparison amongst their peers may not be a healthy way of pursuing their future. Research shows that SMART goals: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-specific, are goals that are more constructive in planning one’s future. With my students, we discuss what interests and passions my students have. I always plan to drag out the student’s own interests, including ones that may be thought of as untraditional. Such interests include jobs in the helping profession, creative arts, and other jobs that families may not easily perceive as stable and financially well-off. I also encourage students to not put such emphasis on the postsecondary institution’s fame. I understand that the fame of one’s school may have influence on the amount of opportunities and funding that the school may provide. At the same time, students also have their own responsibility in searching for such opportunities. Recently, I have had tutor mentors at one of my workplaces come from different universities. As their team leader in training, I had the opportunity to observe them, and there have been many times where tutor mentors from less well-known universities have shown more advanced skills when interacting with our students with learning difficulties. All this to say, going to the ‘best’ university or school is not to be equated as suddenly being knowledgeable and acquiring the skills necessary for the workforce.
While being here, the message I’m receiving from this society is that going to any postsecondary institutions less than a university-level is nothing to be proud of. Parents don’t talk about their children’s success in colleges or technical schools to their friends or other family members. I have asked some parents here in Hong Kong, and some of them do believe that going to university is the only way to find their own future success and be financially stable. I would agree to an extent that going to university is the most straight forward way of going about one’s life, but this is not the only way in finding success. Technical schools and colleges can provide job success. Understandably, many parents are exposed to success stories from doctors, accountants, engineers, lawyers, and businessmen and women. It is less common to hear parents talking about their children’s success in culinary school, other fine art education, or even in helping professions such as a social worker. But one thing that is important to understand is that their children’s passion and interests may not be in line with a typical financially stable job. It is important to understand that families need to be unconditionally supportive for their children, and not just bring up typical job examples such as doctors or lawyers. Bringing up examples that are less popular may give a sense of inclusivity and provide a safe space for their children to discover their interests, even if it may not make their families stereotypically ‘proud’, as when families brag to their relatives and friends when their children gets admitted into the medical program or an accounting program. In this collectivistic culture where cohesiveness, pride, shame, and family are emphasized, it is important for families to be inclusive in their verbal and non-verbal behaviour, communicating to their children that they will have their unconditional support with any program or postsecondary education they personally are interested in. It is, to my knowledge, better to look forward waking up tomorrow doing what interests the students rather than dreading and being stressed thinking about the next day.
One of the last few things I’ve noticed during my stay here is the difference in communication in families. When I take a walk outside here in Hong Kong, the communication between parents and their kids are very direct and have a purpose or goal in mind. On the other hand, in Canada, communication is very open and quite often, there is no purpose or goal in mind but simply an interesting fact, curiosity, or deeper and more personal issues. Using myself as an example, I talk with my mother quite a bit. Many people may think talking with their parents is a very childish, immature, or uncomfortable act. On the contrary, in addition to my friends who are there to actively listen to my problems, I perceive that I always have someone to care for me, my mother. Most of the time, I don’t want a solution from her. I usually just want a person to hear me vent. Some students may find communicating such personal issues with their parents as childish or uncomfortable, but there should be an increase in communication within the family. Communication doesn’t have to be forced but the perception of having family members to rely on and discuss without judgment provides a safe space for the students to vent. Most statements I hear about students from parents is their school success, grades, university admittance, job planning, or even the socioeconomic status of their kid’s partner. When hearing this, the only things I remember are things about academics, because of this huge emphasis from this society to excel in academic achievement. I take this time for families to provide open communication within their families.
As an outsider that visits Hong Kong from time to time, I would hope that Hong Kong’s society would be less rigorous with their standards. Admission into universities are not necessarily based on examination results alone. Instead of aiming for the perfect 5** scores, aiming for the mean scores of previous admittance scores and focusing more on extra-curricular activities that promote the framework of becoming a good team leader, having adequate communication skills, and having other technical skills such as language, may allow for a more well-rounded application and showcase the schools that the individual has more than the ability to memorize and understand the tricks and method of the exams.
學生犧牲了夢想、熱情和時間，為要滿足教育制度的要求，令很多人在年幼時已經厭倦學習。可是，這制度所帶來的影響更為深遠。對學生而言，我們就如倒模工廠的製成品，僅僅以DSE分數作為標籤記號。這些都限制了我們的身份認同，成為一個冰冷、無情感的個體，經常被困於自我存在價值的危機，不斷地問自己 — 我們是誰？生命的目的是什麼？我的價值是什麼？對社會而言，它扭曲了個人能力的定義，並限制了人於「考試策略」上，這完全無助於訓練學生成為推動社會進步的終身學習者。
 STEM : 代表科學 (Science) 、科技 (Technology) 、工程 (Engineering)及數學(Mathematics)各英文首字母縮略詞。
Confessions of a DSE High scorer:
Humanizing the education system
Trembling hands, tear-filled eyes and pale white lips.
Shivers, sniffles. Followed by yelps of glee or cries of despair.
Like defendants in court, awaiting the judges’ final ruling.
DSE is a one-time bet for life and 18 years of hard work has all been for one thing – this single sheet of paper. This scene on DSE Results Day is no stranger to Hong Kong students — it has been replayed time and time again throughout the course of our lives whenever a test or exam was given out. Marks determine our future and define who we are.
So often are we told “grades aren’t everything”, but no one truly believes that, because the system tells us otherwise. It is a delight to see the JUPAS office emphasizing on a more holistic evaluation of each candidate by introducing components such as Other Experiences and Achievements (OEA) and a personal essay (that isn’t even compulsory). However, at the end of the day, we all know it comes down to DSE marks, and every single mark makes a difference. All other components in the application (interview performance, talents, personalities, creativity etc.) are nothing more than tie-breakers. Universities award scholarships by counting the number of stars you get, admission offices proudly publicize DSE quartiles and medians of each program, agencies rank programs solely based on DSE medians of incoming students, and the media makes it a priority to direct the world’s attention toward the handful of perfect scorers. These only further reinforce the twisted mindset that marks is the only thing that matters, thus it should be the only thing we strive for.
I was lucky enough to have gone through both the UK and US application process, and in comparison, it struck me how narrow and atomistic the Hong Kong university admission system is. To excel in British interviews and UCAS personal statements, one must learn outside the curriculum syllabus and combine subject knowledge with current affairs so to showcase one’s inquisitiveness and broad intellectual interests. In the US Commonapp system, essay questions are centered on personal events, such as incidents of failures and successes, our aspirations, world views and hobbies. Ultimately, the system sought to bring out the uniqueness of the individual and how he or she can contribute to the classroom, the school, and the society in ways irrelevant to grades. My intent of this comparison is not to say overseas systems are perfect and should be transplanted to Hong Kong. But I hope they provide insights into essential elements that can be integrated into the JUPAS.
I know many foreign friends who were admitted into top universities because they’ve done extraordinary things outside classrooms. Every time I see them, I remind them how lucky they are, to have universities that prize students’ talents, leadership skills, creativity and resilience to adversity etc. It’s certainly not true that Hong Kong students are incapable of such qualities — all we can blame is the common belief that every minute spent on doing something other than revision is a minute wasted. I have a close friend who’s a talented debater. Due to the time and devotion required by debate tournaments, her grades started to go downhill. Studying for DSE was not only physically torturing (she slept less than 3 hours each day), but also mentally torturing, because she was hit with regret every day of how she gave up her studies to pursue her passion. And apparently, it was the worst decision ever. But should it be?
Every year, I see thousands of students with undiscovered potential being turned away from the doors of higher education because they fail to fit into the conventional measurement of intelligence. I don’t know them personally, but it pains me to see peers be doomed for life – deprived of further learning opportunities and judged harshly by society simply for their inability to excel in one exam.
I might be a high scorer in the DSE exam, but I know I’m just lucky enough to have understood and mastered the game rules. But in retrospect, what a pathetic player I was. For years, all I’ve done were recite facts, complete past papers repeatedly to identify question patterns, and memorize marking schemes to master the so-called “exam tactics”. Only when preparing for overseas application did it hit me what a true learner should be. Schools should be a place for development of inquisitive minds and free exploration of knowledge, and graduates should leave school with a hunger for more knowledge and an urge to apply what was learnt. But an exam-oriented system does the exact opposite.
Students sacrifice pursuits of dreams, passions and personal time to cater to the needs of the system, and many are already fed up with learning at an early age. But the implications of such a system much more far-reaching. To students, we are made into products of an automated cookie-cutting factory, identifiable only by a number label –– our DSE marks. Due to this way of narrowly confining our identity into one cold, emotionless, number, we are often trapped in an existential crises, constantly asking ourselves – who are we? What is the purpose of life? What am I worth? To society, it distorts people’s definition of human capability and confines it to a passive trait of memorization and “exam tactics”. This fails to train students into curious, motivated life-long learners for the benefit of societal progress.
Society should be diverse, not just a collection of book-smart individuals. Universities breed society’s future elites, thus it should take in a rich mix of different interests, personalities and talents. I sincerely wish that university admission criterion will start by humanizing the student, not confining our worth to a grade, but take into account talents, personalities, interpersonal skills etc. I also place hope in the government to provide more paths of self-enhancement to those who unfortunately slip through the admission system, such as a universal subsidy to take vocational courses, and increase in STEM courses. Helping a teenager helps his or her family and improves the lives of more generations to come. It would require huge capital, but it’s a very worthy and wise investment nonetheless.
Jennifer Qiu studied in a local primary and secondary school for 12 years,
and completed the DSE in 2016.
After taking the ACTs, SATs, TOEFL, IELTS and AP,
she applied to universities in the UK and US.
She is now studying at the Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania.