10th July 2024 – (Hong Kong) Within the dynamic environment of Hong Kong, a place highly esteemed for academic excellence and where exam scores are crucial in determining a child’s future, a recent survey from City University of Hong Kong (CityUHK) has revealed a disturbing paradox. While Hong Kong’s students continue to rank among the world’s best in international assessments, they are increasingly struggling with mental health issues, pointing to a critical gap in the city’s educational approach.

The CityUHK study, which surveyed 4,002 local primary and secondary school students, teachers, and parents, paints a stark picture of the emotional landscape in Hong Kong’s schools. Nearly one-third of primary students reported moderate to high levels of depression, anxiety, and stress. Even more alarmingly, 46.4% of secondary students experienced moderate to severe levels of depression, with 52.1% reporting significant stress.

These findings come as no surprise to many educators and mental health professionals who have long warned about the potential consequences of Hong Kong’s high-pressure educational environment. The city’s schools are renowned for their rigorous academic standards and competitive atmosphere, but this focus on scholastic achievement may be coming at the cost of students’ emotional well-being.

Perhaps most revealing is the study’s indication that teachers’ and parents’ emotional stress is closely correlated with student depression levels. Over 24% of primary school teachers and 21% of secondary school teachers reported moderate to high negative emotions. Parents, particularly those with children in secondary school, also exhibited concerning levels of depression and anxiety.

This interconnectedness of emotional well-being across the educational ecosystem highlights a critical point: the mental health of students cannot be addressed in isolation. Any meaningful intervention must consider the emotional state of all stakeholders in a child’s education.

Professor Sylvia Kwok Lai Yuk-ching from CityUHK’s Department of Social and Behavioural Sciences emphasises this point, stating, “The mental health of parents and teachers is closely related to the psychological well-being of children. We recommend that schools adopt the whole-school positive education approach to enhance the mental health of parents and teachers.”

The CityUHK survey’s findings expose a fundamental issue in Hong Kong’s education system: the lack of emphasis on emotional intelligence and life skills. While students are rigorously trained in academic subjects, they are often left unprepared for the emotional challenges of adulthood.

This gap in education is not unique to Hong Kong. Globally, there is a growing recognition that traditional academic curricula fall short in preparing students for the complexities of modern life. As one educator put it, “We teach our children how to solve complex mathematical equations, but not how to navigate the intricacies of human relationships or cope with personal setbacks.”

The consequences of this oversight can be far-reaching. Adults who lack emotional intelligence often struggle in their personal and professional lives, despite academic or career success. They may find themselves ill-equipped to handle stress, maintain healthy relationships, or find fulfilment beyond material achievements.

Recognising this critical gap, CityUHK’s Positive Education Laboratory has partnered with The WEMP Foundation to launch the Positive Education and Mental Health Promotion Ambassador Programme. This initiative aims to promote positive education among teachers and parents through various courses and activities between 2024 and 2026.

The programme, fully funded by WEMP, will offer free 20-hour certificate courses and related activities designed to strengthen positive emotions and promote mental well-being in students. This collaboration represents a significant step towards integrating emotional intelligence into Hong Kong’s educational framework.

Mr Lester Garson Huang, CityUHK Council Chairman, expressed optimism about the initiative, stating, “With the research and practical experience of the Positive Education Laboratory, as well as the multi-disciplinary experts gathered by WEMP, we can promote a positive culture on campus and in the community, creating a better environment for the next generation.”

While the CityUHK-WEMP collaboration is a promising start, implementing a truly holistic approach to education in Hong Kong faces several challenges. The city’s deeply ingrained culture of academic competition and the high stakes placed on exam results cannot be easily dismantled. Moreover, integrating emotional intelligence and life skills into an already packed curriculum requires careful planning and resource allocation. Teachers, many of whom are already overburdened, will need training and support to effectively deliver this new dimension of education.

However, the potential benefits of such a shift are immense. A more balanced approach to education could not only improve students’ mental health but also better prepare them for the challenges of adult life. This, in turn, could lead to a more resilient, adaptable, and emotionally intelligent workforce – a significant advantage in today’s rapidly changing global economy.

Ultimately, addressing the emotional well-being gap in Hong Kong’s education system requires more than just curriculum changes. It calls for a broader societal shift in how success and achievement are defined and valued.

Dr Ko Wing-man, Member of the Executive Council of the HKSAR, acknowledges this need, stating, “The Education Bureau is committed to implementing ‘Positive Education’ and ‘Enhancing Campus Well-being’ though a multi-pronged approach to support student growth by optimising in-school education, strengthening home-school co-operation, inspiring students’ positive thinking and promoting their mental health.” This multi-pronged approach is crucial. Schools alone cannot bear the entire responsibility for nurturing emotionally intelligent individuals. Parents, employers, and society at large must also recognise and value emotional intelligence alongside academic achievements.