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Why mental wellbeing is essential for vulnerable populations during Covid-19

As the pandemic continues, Soul Conscious Community brings meditation and stress management to Hong Kong’s homeless and disabled communities.

In Hong Kong, psychology and counselling sessions can be prohibitively expensive, at upwards of HK$1,300-$2,500 per session. With such high fees, many of the city’s most vulnerable communities, such as the homeless, disabled and low-income families, struggle to access the help they need, particularly during a stressful and unpredictable pandemic. 

Established in Hong Kong earlier this year, Soul Conscious Community aims to provide mutual support in Hong Kong abroad through a mix of free weekly meditation groups, psychology education workshops, discounted or free counselling sessions, virtual meditation practices and sound healing.

We caught up with Soul Conscious Community co-founder Liz McCaughey, a licensed psychotherapist with more than 20 years of counselling experience, to hear more about the community’s work, how they’re helping often overlooked groups, and how we can all nurture our mental health during the pandemic. 

Liz McCaughey, founder of Soul Conscious Community. Credit: Liz McCaughey
Liz McCaughey, founder of Soul Conscious Community. Credit: Liz McCaughey

Ariana: Tell us about yourself and why you started Soul Conscious Community.

Liz McCaughey: I am a qualified psychotherapist, clinical supervisor and counsellor. After running two meditation centres in Australia, I actually came to Hong Kong in January 2020 to retire – at least, that was my original plan. 

But when I got here, I realised that mental health is really stigmatised –  mental health issues are kept hidden, which surprised me, coming from Australia  [where it is acceptable to talk and get help]. So I started doing some workshops on mindfulness, mental health and meditation.

Through these workshops, I met Lulu Taylor, who specialises in soundscapes, such as gong baths [a form of sound therapy and meditation]. Our skills complemented each other, so we started Soul Conscious Community to spread awareness about mental health and wellbeing in Hong Kong.  

How has the last year of social unrest and current pandemic impacted Hongkongers? 

LM: We are very aware of the enormous stress that has been experienced for over a year now. Hong Kong was already a stressful and demanding environment due to the city’s 2019 protests, which were immediately followed by Covid-19. Both impacted businesses and job security, and there’s  a great need for more mental health support and for the acceptance of such support among a population that does not quickly seek psychological help. 

Now, people desperately need relief from the stress, fear and constant worry surrounding the pandemic and the accompanying economic meltdown. We have gone through a turbulent year with multiple waves of infections – with the third wave, people started to lose a little bit of hope, we all really had no faith in the system, dare I say it. The people of Hong Kong complied with government restriction, however, we still saw a third wave. 

And when people have no faith and lose hope, they get stressed, anxious and those who are prone to depression will really struggle. The problem with Covid-19 is that it’s a nearly invisible airborne virus, and even the medical world doesn’t totally know what we are dealing with. 

We follow the restrictions and think we are all clear, and then we start to get back to normal life and it hits again and again. This leads to a lot of uncertainty, which people do not like.  We can’t keep going forward and then being pinged backwards.

At Soul Conscious Community, we decided not just to focus on mainstream people – what about the disadvantaged people? What about those who are homeless? They are in trauma. What about the disabled, who are terrified and didn’t understand the protests or Covid-19? They’re all frightened they are going to lose their jobs. 

How does all this chronic worry impact people?

LM: Stress and worry take a toll on your body and mental wellbeing. It significantly affects your ability to work effectively, have successful relationships, take care of your fearful children or live a healthy life. The main tip is not to be afraid to ask for help. 

Support is available in Hong Kong, from counsellors to psychotherapists, mindfulness and meditation groups and supportive groups such as ours. Of course, not everyone can afford these services, so we have provided a few other options as well.

For example, I offer the Mutual Benefit Therapy Program, where individuals can access affordable counselling by a group of roughly 25 Monash University Master of Counselling students. I’ve recently started a weekly online psychological webinar, called “Lets Talk About”, where we discuss different psychological issues and have breakout groups for discussion. At HK$420 per month, it is very affordable. 

[Read more: 7 mental health tips to battle coronavirus anxiety ]

How does Soul Conscious Community help?

LM: In addition to our free weekly meditation sessions and group events (when possible to host), our Monash graduate counsellors.

Our students have a broad range of life experiences and, as part of their course practice, offer their services free to NGOs like ImpactHK, which works with the homeless, and the Nesbitt Centre, which focuses on serving the disabled community as part of our Mutual Benefit Therapy Program.

I take our students to observe the NGOs work, meet the directors and community, then we allocate students to provide counselling sessions for free. Nearly every day, the students visit the Nesbitt Centre’s Cafe 8, which employs disabled staff, or over the Impact HK’s centre for the homeless, to provide counselling services 

In addition, our students provide affordable counselling services for everyday residents who do not have special needs. Each session costs between HK$100 and HK$300 and takes place online or at my office in Central.

Why is getting help with mental health important?

LM: Therapy and counselling lead to a reset of our perspectives, offering us the ability to step back and observe rather than stay trapped inside the events that surround us in the moment. And the ethos of our programme is all about service, so we wanted to find ways to serve the community of Hong Kong, especially in this time of need. 

Credit: Brandon Lee on Unsplash
Credit: Brandon Lee on Unsplash

How has the current situation impacted some of the vulnerable communities you are working with? 

LM: At Impact HK, the students’ clients are suffering and very confused. A lot of homeless people are already unwell – they might be recovering from drug addictions or have existing mental health issues. And now, many are very confused as to why they have to wear masks and can’t be in groups. 

In addition, Covid-19 measures had deprived them of many daily essentials like proper showers, hygiene care, and shelter in air-conditioned places like McDonald’s [due to Covid-19 dine-in restrictions].  

At Cafe 8, the workers are worried about losing their jobs. They know it’s quiet and are very, very scary because there aren’t many opportunities for the disabled in Hong Kong. According to a study by six social welfare groups in 2017, roughly 48 per cent of disabled population is unemployed.  They love their jobs – it gives them self respect and they are so proud.   

In addition to therapy sessions, what else can we do to help manage fear and stress?

LM: You try breathing techniques – sometimes the clients arrive and they’re so stressed, I just have them sit down and do some basic breathing techniques. Whether it’s a workshop or counselling session, we always ask the client to do some breathing exercises as homework. 

There’s no point in you sitting down and doing a great meditation if you walk out of the door and you immediately feel stressed again. So there are simple breathing and visualisation techniques that are given in therapy to assist the client in between sessions.

Is there any point in meditating then?  

LM: Mindfulness and meditation techniques are excellent for calming the frantic mind and lowering stress and fear levels. A couple of short de-stressing meditations, incorporated into the day are better than one long one.

Routine and rhythm in daily life are essential, especially at a time when one day blurs into another. And, for families, online schooling means there is little delineation between school term and school holidays.

Credit: Denise Chan on Unsplash
Credit: Denise Chan on Unsplash

What else can we do to take care of ourselves and our community?

LM: Psychoeducation has a place in helping maintain better mental health. Just like you would if you have a physical ailment or injury, go online and research reputable websites about mental health issues. 

I also run a free weekly online psychology session, where we cover various aspects of mental health and psychology education. In all our courses, we encourage you to learn techniques that you can take away with you and apply throughout your day.

[Read more: Medical masks are magnifying Hong Kong’s ongoing pollution crisis]

What are your plans for Soul Conscious Community in the future?

LM: We are very new on the scene and are trying to catch up, but the initiatives that we have organised, so far, are we believe helping Hong Kong in this time of continuous crises. At the moment all our events are in English – but hopefully one day we can expand to the Cantonese speaking community. 

We are also planning to create programmes for specific groups, such as people going through divorce, or those with eating disorders. There is a lot more to do; we are an active community that cares and we want to help those in need in Hong Kong.

Interview edited for clarity. 

Check out McCaughey’s free mediations and daily routines to help with mental health.