Rat race Hong Kong comes to terms with depression
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.
"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 2000.
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 volunteer.
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.