July 16, 2005

Rat race Hong Kong comes to terms with depression

By Tan Ee Lyn

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Very few people in Hong Kong
recognized depression as an illness until the end of 2003 when
popular television actress Victoria Lam openly admitted her
condition, which had by then destroyed her career.

Vivacious, beautiful and successful, Lam found herself
breaking into tears for no apparent reason and locking herself
at home for days on end in 2002. She had no idea what was wrong
with her until a close friend took her to a psychiatrist.

"I didn't want to see anyone. I lost all energy. I wouldn't
get out of bed and wouldn't shower for days. Even if a mountain
of gold was right there for my taking, I would not even look at
it," Lam told Reuters on Friday on the sidelines of a three-day
fair to educate the public on the illness.

"I felt completely useless and I wanted to die by burning
charcoal. But I was too lethargic even to get out of bed and go
buy coal," said the 1973 Hong Kong beachwear queen, now 50.

In crowded, fast-paced and expensive Hong Kong, where
financial success is paramount, depression is a growing
problem. There were 1,000 suicides in 2004, up from 915 in

An estimated 70,000 of Hong Kong's nearly seven million
people suffer from serious depression, but Lam says one out of
every five residents exhibit some form of the illness.

Its most famous victim was superstar singer Leslie Cheung,
who plunged to his death from the Mandarin Oriental Hotel two
years ago. His suicide shocked the world.


Experts around the world are still struggling to get the
message across that depression is a genuine medical disorder
rather than a manifestation of a character flaw.

Its causes are still unclear: it appears to be related to
stress, but sometimes there are no apparent triggers.

Scientists say genes may play a part and they link it to an
imbalance of serotonin, a chemical in the brain. Sufferers are
treated with antidepressants and "talk therapy."

Lam began recovering in 2004 and set up the Joyful Mental
Health Foundation to help depression sufferers.

"This disease is a killer. We have to tell more people and
let them know there is a cure. What happened to Leslie should
not have happened," said Lam, who now works full time as a

The information fair at the sprawling Victoria Park, where
psychiatrists were on standby to offer free diagnoses, is the
first time depression has been addressed publicly in Hong Kong.

One highlight was a laughing contest.