Loss taught Olivia Parker an important lesson about why mental health should matter to us all
Laurence died on the 17th of October last year. We were on holiday in Laos, getting a break from Hong Kong, having moved here from London the previous January. On our fourth day, I had gone on a day trip by myself to visit an elephant sanctuary, and I returned to find him in our hotel room, just looking like he was asleep.
He had been taking various medications including anti-depressants, anti-anxiety pills and sleeping tablets, all prescribed by doctors in Hong Kong. It was a combination drugs and alcohol that meant he accidentally overdosed.
Had you met him, I am sure Laurence would have looked to you like someone who had nothing wrong with him – apart from maybe an addiction to e-cigarettes.
He studied drama at university and then joined the army and did a tour of Afghanistan, so he was used to being on stage and facing difficult situations. We were together for nearly five years and he was one of the most outwardly confident and direct people I’ve ever met. Some of the things he loved, which you would know after knowing him for just five minutes, include music (which came before most other things), his friends, festivals, travelling, and anything that was fast or exciting or dangerous, or just ridiculous – he had a very unique sense of humor.
After he told me he had depression, soon after we got together, I almost forgot about it because I never saw anything that I associated the the illness. I only began to really understand much later, shortly before we moved here. And it’s been more recently still that I’ve started to think about the role his workplaces played in terms of his mental health.
Laurence left the army in 2014 and went to work for KPMG in London as a project manager. By 2016 we’d started to think about moving to Hong Kong and were both looking around for other jobs.
There’s definitely no one reason why Laurence started to develop anxiety and worsening bouts of depression. There are many. But thinking about moving country, changing jobs, leaving our friends – any of these things that so many of us have done to come here are stressful, even though we all think we should be able to deal with them fine.
A few times, Laurence told me, people at work had noticed something wasn’t right. He once took Xanax before one meeting because he felt so anxious, and was so doped that he almost fell asleep. Other times he would have to take a day off because he couldn’t face going in to the office or hadn’t slept at all. I knew he was also drinking a lot more than normal and when I finally got him to tell me why, he said he had been so dreading going to whatever social event it was that alcohol was the only way he thought he’d get through it.
He was lucky to have colleagues at KPMG UK who noticed something was wrong. One senior partner took him for a coffee one day and asked – really asked – whether he was ok. He told Laurence he understood because he himself hadn’t slept without sleeping pills for years, had dealt with anxiety and was seeing a psychologist. Coming from someone so senior, this had a huge impact. Other colleagues also looked out for him and he started to do the same for other people, for example paying attention if they said they weren’t sleeping, and checking in with them regularly.
More even than your friends or your partner, I realized that your colleagues who see you every day are some of the best-placed people to be able to tell if your behavior is out of character. And sometimes it’s easier to talk to them because they’re one step removed from your home life. KPMG also recommended psychologists and psychiatrists, who diagnosed depression and anxiety, and the company’s health insurance policy paid for them. This was something we totally took for granted but that actually was a huge testament to the fact the company was prepared to take mental health seriously, knowing the business benefits as well. This was all in the UK.
Then we moved here. We really loved Hong Kong from the start, even though Laurence started to feel much worse quite soon after we got here. Again, there aren’t definitive reasons why, but his new job with Deloitte, working in client contracting, didn’t suit him and he seemed to almost spiral downhill. It seemed to me like his mental health was tied pretty closely to what he felt he was achieving at work and what he felt this said about him as a person.
I’d arrive home and find him feeling awful, and he couldn’t really say why. When you think of someone with depression, you think they have to stay under the duvet for weeks. He never did that but carried on going to work, going out with friends, going on holiday with me, though I could often literally see the physical effort it would cost him.
As you’ll know if you’ve ever lived with someone with depression or anxiety, it can be hard to empathize with them. I remember sitting on a beach, on a day off work. The sun was out, we had nothing to do, we loved each other, we lived in Hong Kong, everything was great – but still, he was in this deep mental darkness he couldn’t shake. We thought at the time it was because the anti-depressants he was taking were having odd side-effects as they settled in, but he tried a few others and nothing seemed to be the miracle cure.
We tried to get more help but kept hitting barriers. Deloitte’s health insurance policy – and this is standard in Hong Kong – only covered a small amount of his psychiatrist bills, which pay for the medications. It didn’t cover any treatment by a psychologist, which is where you have the chance to talk through what’s going on as well as taking drugs.
I can’t say if this is true, but Laurence was also convinced he wouldn’t find support if he told people at work what he was going through, especially senior partners but also HR staff too. You can imagine he might be right about that: There’s still a huge amount of stigma here about mental health conditions, among both locals and expats. In work it is still something that’s taboo to bring up.
There were other barriers to Laurence getting help, some more complicated. I can see that “self-stigma,” which is when you agree with the stereotypes about something, may have played its role, even though Laurence was quite good at accepting and telling our friends that he had depression and anxiety.
Talking it through with a therapist, though, was a different story. As well as the high costs and long waiting times – which are what deter many people in Hong Kong from going – maybe the bigger reason for him was he just really didn’t want to go. He didn’t think it would help because he had his own impressions of what therapy was, and I think he was apprehensive about what it might bring up that he didn’t want to think about. Sadly, this remains a really common view – plenty of us still think therapy is for people who have reached rock bottom, not for us.
I can’t say that therapy would definitely have helped Laurence. We tried to find other resources or things that might help but we didn’t know where to look and there were no obvious people to talk to or places to go. We needed information, specific for Hong Kong, and resources, and support, and it definitely wasn’t provided through work, the one place that had provided everything back in the UK.
Laurence had wanted to set up a charity that would fill this gap, which he decided to call Help Me, because that’s all he could think when he was at his lowest point. This is why his family and I are now working on a virtual mental health assistant project, which will be called Help Me, and will sit on the new Mind Hong Kong website, drawing on all its resources in Cantonese and English to provide instant, clear information about mental health when people need it.
In a work environment, we’re not necessarily among close friends. It’s not always what we think of as “real life,” even though it is real life. Mental health problems can obviously develop because of work, or in spite of work, or have nothing to do with work – but the benefit of the workplace, I think, on the most simple level, is that it is somewhere we physically turn up to regularly where there are other people who know us. That means it’s easy to see who isn’t there when they’re meant to be, or whose eyes have been bloodshot for a week, or who is acting out of character.
That means there’s a huge opportunity here, especially in Hong Kong where we’re really not addressing mental health at work yet. I think it needs to be part of a company’s culture, from the top to the bottom, to acknowledge and talk about mental health conditions in real terms, with their real names, as well as under labels like wellbeing or resilience. We should all know what these conditions are like and be aware of how to cope with them, or what to say to someone who might be struggling.
And if companies in the UK can offer full financial and other support to employees who need to see therapists and psychiatrists, I don’t know why we aren’t doing that here too. Mental health conditions don’t discriminate, there’s no one who is naturally immune, and we’ve all seen the statistics and heard the stories about how serious this is. So these measures will be in all of our interests.
But on a smaller scale maybe we can all individually help each other too, simply by asking more often how someone is and listening to the answers, or by accepting that getting help is strong, not weak.
Work should be somewhere we know we are safe to talk about how we feel without fear of any stigma or other consequences. Then we might all be happier, maybe even work harder, and have lives in Hong Kong that are more stable and less vulnerable.
That’s the opportunity that Laurence saw, and it’s the one that I want everyone to see, on his behalf and mine.
This article is taken from a talk given by Olivia Parker to a CMHA HK event marking World Mental Health Day on October 10. She is deputy editor at Campaign Asia and sits on the board of the charity Mind Hong Kong.