8 March 2016

An Open Letter from the University Dean of Students

Dear Colleagues, Students and Alumni,

The University community has mourned the departure of a few dear souls in the past few months.  Every time the tragedy struck, my colleagues and I were saddened and set to ponder what had extinguished the hopes of a young mind.  We have thought long and hard on how to strengthen our support services on the basis of the University's existing framework to prevent the tragedy from striking again.

Our sense of futility is exacerbated by the fact that the majority of the departed had never sought help from the Office of Student Affairs (OSA) or the Colleges, and some of them did very well academically and had appeared most normal among friends.  It was well-nigh impossible to foretell the tragic ways in which they chose to end their lives.

To help the new intake adjust to campus life, the University’s Student Counseling and Development Service carries out a survey on their mental well-being at the beginning of the academic year.  Any indication of depression, anxiety and pressure from the survey would be followed up with the necessary support and counseling.  This year, a total of 3,543 undergraduate and postgraduate students had participated in the survey.  Our counseling outfit has followed up with and assisted 860 of these students who demonstrated some degree of disturbance or needed help.

Other efforts to promote personal growth and mental well-being among our students include regularly held workshops, support groups, the peer group support scheme "uBuddies", the Mental Wellness Promotion Weeks, training courses in positive psychology and other related activities.  Training is also provided to University staff to render emotional support and guidance to students in their charge if necessary.  In 2014–15, a total of 60 workshops, courses and events were held with 6,942 students and nearly 300 staff members participating.

Professor Joseph Sung, Vice-Chancellor, and the senior management team had convened an emergency crisis management meeting yesterday.  A task force jointly led by Pro-Vice-Chancellors Professor Michael Hui and Professor Fanny Cheung was formed to conduct a comprehensive review of the mental well-being services for our students.  The task force hopes to get to the bottom of how tension builds up from their studies, adjustment, personal growth and social life, and make recommendations to strengthen the framework of counseling and support, and how to mobilize resources to identify the emotionally disturbed and render the requisite assistance.  Members of the task force include teachers of psychology and psychiatry, professional counselors, student representatives and students who had got back on track after receiving counseling.  The task force will submit its report and recommendations as soon as is practicable, with ensuing forums for staff and students to canvass their views on the best mental care and services for our students.

The crisis management team led by the Vice-Chancellor himself has also resolved to take the following actions with immediate effect:

  • At present, the University Health Service can refer the serious cases to outside psychiatrists within a short period of time.  The University has also engaged one more specialist in psychiatry for on-campus consultation one day a week;
  • The number of professional counselors of OSA will be increased from 8 to 11, and the waiting time for appointment will foreseeably be shortened;
  • a late-night hotline is established in collaboration with the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups to provide timely assistance to the urgent cases;
  • the counselors of OSA have taken the emergency measure of contacting all the high-risk cases to minimize the negative effect on them of the recent sad news;
  • the counseling team of OSA will step up its promotional efforts and be more proactive in communicating with the student population to minimize the stigmatizing effect and to nurture a culture of looking out for each other.

I am as grief-stricken as you all are in seeing the premature wilting of talents one after another.  As a teacher and as University Dean of Students, however, I must stomach the grief and press on with my colleagues to work harder to prevent similar tragedies from happening again.  We cannot promise we'll find a solution.  What we can promise is that the University will not ease up on its efforts for one moment.  We will use every means we have at our disposal to keep every student out of harm's way.

I hope every colleague and every student can also lend a hand and watch out for any potential SOS from those around you.  Sometimes all it takes is a sympathizing look or some caring words to halt a body on the cliff.  Let's work together, the University and all of you, to shine a ray of hope on the distressed and the despaired.

We are always there to listen and to help, and can be reached via telephone (3943 7208), e-mail (scds@cuhk.edu.hk), website (www.cuhk.edu.hk/osa/scds) or by appointment at SCDS on 2nd floor, Benjamin Franklin Centre (duty counselors also available).

Dennis Ng
University Dean of Students