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The Mind of Dr Sandra Chan

A caring psychiatrist who lends herself to her students and patients

While we were fiddling with our camera, we heard a knock. There she was, calm and composed, greeting us with a warm smile. We shook hands and immediately felt at ease. “You guys are such professionals,” she said, while searching for a spot to sit down.

Our conversation opened with a story, one of special note as it has survived years of memory. It was about one of her former students who had a psychotic breakdown during medical school. Hospitalized, but unwilling to accept his illness, he ended up deferring. “But he still believed he could go back into medical school,” said Dr. Chan. After a whirlwind of struggle and receiving care overseas that became unaffordable, he later returned to Hong Kong later with the realization that he could not resume medical studies. “He still wanted to help patients in a way by becoming a facility worker at the hospital.” Later, he even decided to transform his own story into an inspiration for others and had since become trained as a peer counselor and subsequently hired at an NGO. “The illness makes him strong,” she said, almost with a hint of disbelief but also absolute admiration. Compared to the many tragic suicide stories we hear on TV or read about on the internet in Hong Kong nowadays, this story is was laced with positivity.

Perhaps to our surprise (certainly to mine), Dr Chan clarified that Hong Kong is only ranked in the middle in terms of suicide rates. High demand in academic achievements and the “tiger-mom” culture so entrenched in Asian community are often cited as triggers for youths. In Hong Kong, suicide has become the second highest cause of death, preceded by accidents among youths and not to mention the recent waves of student suicides at the universities. When asked about what the government has attempted to do, Dr Chan explained that a huge sum of money had been infused into research and related surveys, most notably a recent citywide mental health morbidity survey. A roadshow campaign on destigmatizing mental illness sponsored by the government also concluded with post evaluation is now underway. I heard myself uttering “really”. Shocked at such initiatives from the government, yet I, a concerned citizen, did not even smell a whiff of this campaign.

Like any other medical specialty, psychiatry is in severe shortage of doctors. Right now, psychiatrists working at public hospitals spend an average of eight minutes per patient, as reported by Hospital Authority. However, Dr Chan would choose “to talk longer with a patient who needed more time.” What has been encouraging for her to see in her 20 years of practice is the tremendous support given by the allied healthcare professionals such as nurses and social workers - that everyone knows how demanding a public hospital doctor’s workload can be. Throughout the entire interview, there was not one dull moment speaking with a great mind in psychiatry. The room never stopped filling with stimulating information.

As a psychiatrist, Dr Chan does not just care for her patients at the hospital and

devote her time to doing medically advanced research on devising brain models for mental disorders. She also commits to teaching and supporting students in a different capacity - as leader of the Wellness Counseling Team in the CUHK Faculty of Medicine - working in a team to integrate self-care and resilience modules into the stressful medical curriculum. “There is a misconception that a psychiatrist only hands out medicine and doesn’t talk much unlike a psychologist, so students shy away from seeing one,” she explained, “but that is not true.” Indeed, a psychologist is not qualified to prescribe medication while psychiatrists can, for pathological problems. Private psychiatrists would just as likely spend more time talking with patients. To my tremendous surprise, I learned that CUHK University Health Services (UHS) actually can refer any student out to private psychiatrists, and later reimburse 100 percent on the hefty fees. Students may just visit a general practitioner at UHS or go through Office of Student Affairs to initiate this. It is possible many students still battle with the stigma and labels, fearful that the university or their peers find out. Encouragingly, as Dr Chan puts it, “you’re not having a weak personality...we’re here to help you tackle a new challenge.”[1] Whether they be emotional episodes or - simply, if you’re you are not feeling like yourself, not enjoying the same activities anymore, no matter how long this lasts - “go see someone.” Have for yourself something of a “self-care box” with things you enjoy that lift your spirit and mood; maybe it is doing sports, yoga, hanging out with your dog, and quite literally anything that makes you happy. If these fail and you can’t pull yourself out of the vicious cycle of thinking, just talk to someone and seek help from professionals at school or in the community. Alternatively, if you notice something is wrong in your friends or peers, be that person they can talk with. Office of Student Affairs and the Faculty of Medicine offer Mental Health First Aid certificate course from which you can learn to recognize the signs of mood disorders and help comfort others in need. It is not only students who have mental illness who seek help - sometimes you just need someone to talk to - you can even bring your friends!

The art of welding compassion and knowledge appears to be mastered very well by Dr Chan. Her many contributions to the patient, student, and scientific community have resulted in many lives helped and souls comforted.

As she recalls her old student who was a rehab patient-turned counsellor she called him “a symbol of enlightenment.” I hope my fellow students out there, who may be struggling now or later, can endure and also find their own silver lining.

When asked why she picked psychiatry as her specialty, her answer, in my summary, was “I care a lot.” This lends itself to a great psychiatrist.

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