Children and teenagers with emotional or mental health problems have to wait up to 17 months to receive treatment at overburdened public hospitals facing a manpower shortage, a panel discussion revealed on Wednesday amid shock and concern from lawmakers.
The wait is even longer than that of adult patients, with most young sufferers queuing for 14.5 months before receiving help.
At a Legislative Council panel meeting, undersecretary for food and health Dr Chui Tak-yi said an advisory committee on mental health, chaired by former secretary for justice Wong Yan-lung, would prioritise a review on the matter.
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“The supply in the mental health care industry is not quite able to catch up with demand,” Dr Linda Yu Wai-ling, the Hospital Authority’s chief manager of integrated care programmes, said. “There are even fewer mental health experts [specialising in] children and adolescents.”
There are currently about 330 psychiatrists employed in public hospitals – 400 fewer than the number recommended by the World Health Organisation, taking into account the city’s population.
More than 32,000 children and adolescents were treated last year, of which about 12,000 were aged between 12 to 17, Yu said. Most of them have autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
A delay in getting treatment for over a year may cost a child valuable study time and social opportunities in their prime years, said Dr May Lam Mei-ling, director of Variety, a charity that provides free mental health treatment to children from low-income families.
Legislators from across the political spectrum urged the government to take immediate action and provide help to those affected.
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Lawmakers Michael Tien Puk-sun and Shiu Ka-chun, who represents the social welfare sector, called on authorities to subsidise the treatment of patients from low-income families at private psychiatric clinics, which charge up to HK$800 an hour for a therapy session.
Meanwhile, lawmaker for the medical sector Dr Pierre Chan said the Education Bureau should not force teenagers with serious learning disabilities to fit into mainstream schools as it would further increase the pressure they faced.
Lawmaker Cheng Chung-tai, a part-time lecturer at Polytechnic University, said he felt that more university students were succumbing to mental health problems.
“In the past, cases of students dropping out because of emotional problems or mental health conditions were rather rare. But now, there are students dropping out every year.”
Chui said the committee had started its first meeting on Friday and would prioritise issues concerning young people, but no timetable and target has been set by the group so far.