‘Tip of the iceberg’: Spate of Hong Kong murder-suicide tragedies sparks calls for early detection of high-risk families

Authorities should take steps to earlier identify high-risk families with members who have mental disabilities and assign case managers to support them, social welfare leaders in Hong Kong have said, following a spate of tragedies involving murder-suicides that one lawmaker calls the tip of the iceberg.

A woman, 58, and her 32-year-old son with mentally disabilities were found dead on Monday at their home in Kwai Fong Estate, in a suspected murder-suicide case.

A source said the mother was believed to have killed herself and her son over concerns she could not care for him due to her own illness.

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Social welfare sector lawmaker Tik Chi-yuen said on Monday the government should be more proactive in identifying high-risk families with members who had disabilities and were already in the system, as he voiced concerns the latest case was just the tip of the iceberg.

He said healthcare professionals could ask patients a few more questions while taking in new cases to detect any potential high-risk families, adding patients with disabilities tended to visit doctors more regularly than others.

“For example, they can ask patients: who takes care of them, whether they are the carers, their age or how many people they need to take care of,” Tik said. “Just a few questions can allow one to know whether it is a high-risk family or a carer.”

Those potentially at-risk cases could then be referred to medical social workers, he added.

A man, 80, died in an alleged murder-suicide attempt at Shek Mun MTR station in January. Photo: Google Maps

He said schools could play a role since those with disabilities also needed to study.

“Schoolteachers can also regularly understand pupils’ latest family situation and identify high-risk cases to school social workers,” Tik said.

Martin Wong Wai-hung, chairman of the Hong Kong Joint Council of Parents of the Mentally Handicapped, said authorities could also identify high-risk cases by taking a closer look at families on a government-run disability allowance scheme.

Wong said that with a clearer grasp of the number of families in need, the government could better allocate resources.

Data published by the Census and Statistics Department in 2022 showed that Hong Kong had about 77,000 to 90,000 people with intellectual disabilities.

But Wong said the number, derived from a citywide survey, could be an underestimation because many people declined to reveal whether they had family members with intellectual disabilities.

He said that carers for people with moderate intellectual disabilities, who had limited ability to look after themselves, were under immense pressure.

“[The disabled] may need help in the toilet and shower,” Wong said. “They will also require close attention when they are eating, as they may eat too quickly, refuse to eat or eat too much.

“They usually have weaker skills in expressing themselves or even do not know how to speak. So they can lose their temper as they do not know how to express their thoughts.”

Challenges carers faced might increase as younger residents with disabilities grew stronger and bigger, Wong said.

He said the government should introduce case managers – designated people to follow up on the family and help secure support from various units at different stages.

“We have many resources in helping [people with disabilities] and there are people helping them at different stages, but they are working individually,” Wong said, adding that welfare units offering allowances or family care services were working in silos.

“Now that we are talking about targeted poverty alleviation, why isn’t there a policy for offering families with the intellectually disabled with targeted help?”

Kan Wing-shan, an assistant professor at Baptist University’s department of social work, said case managers would be able to help families navigate different community services. She said Hong Kong lacked case manager training.

A woman, 58, and her 32-year-old son with mentally disabilities were found dead in their home at Kwai Fong Estate on Monday. Photo: Handout

Kan, whose research includes case management in long-term care, said that while social workers were considered to be the appropriate choice for the role, extra training on how to communicate with different professions would be important.

The latest tragedy in Kwai Fong was the city’s third such case this year.

In March, an 84-year-old dementia sufferer was found dead with tape covering his nose and mouth at his home on Beacon Hill in Kowloon Tong, while his wife was discovered injured and unconscious at the scene. Police arrested the woman, 71, over the suspected murder-suicide attempt.

In January, an 80-year-old man died in an alleged murder-suicide attempt at Shek Mun MTR station. His 71-year-old wife, who is disabled and has dementia, survived the incident. Staff found the pair inside a bathroom with their heads covered by plastic bags tied with strings.

The spate of tragedies has sparked concerns about the well-being of elderly residents and their carers.

Experts have estimated that 1.3 million carers are currently under significant stress, with authorities offering limited support and lacking tailored policies as the city grapples with a rapidly ageing population.

Police handled 1,235 reports of domestic violence crimes last year, a 9.5 per cent rise from 1,128 cases logged in 2022.

If you have suicidal thoughts, or you know someone who is, help is available. For Hong Kong, dial +852 18111 for the government-run “Mental Health Support Hotline” or +852 2896 0000 for The Samaritans and +852 2382 0000 for Suicide Prevention Services. In the US, call or text 988 or chat at 988lifeline.org for the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

For a list of other nations’ helplines, see this page.

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