Beijing’s national security law, which has been in effect for more than a year, has cast a shadow over many professions in Hong Kong. Teachers and lawyers are under increasing pressure from authorities on how to behave, while district officials and councilors must swear allegiance to the government.
Some clinical psychologists and school counselors in the city fear they will be next, as they struggle to navigate what critics have decried as ever-changing red lines in the law.
Speaking on condition of anonymity under assumed names, psychologists and counselors working in the public, education and community sectors told HKFP they were more reluctant to bring up political topics during counseling sessions.
“People are definitely drawing red lines and censoring themselves more recently,” said Jack, a clinical psychologist.
“In terms of work, we don’t get any explicit warning but we all know that… since the social movement in 2019, there has been a notice from the administrative level that staff members need to be really careful not to actively speak or broadcast their own political agenda.
No official guidance has been issued on potential national security risks to Hong Kong advisers.
Currently, there is no standardized code of ethics for counselors. The guidelines of professional associations and institutions require them to keep confidential information shared during a session, unless they have reasonable grounds to believe that the client will pose an immediate threat to themselves or to them. others.
If so, they are supposed to report the case to the police.
Confidentiality agreements in general also cover criminal behavior that does not cause harm to others. It is not yet clear whether this will remain the case under the National Security Act.
The Hong Kong Psychological and Counseling Society, one of the city’s multiple professional associations of counselors, told HKFP that it had received requests from some members for ethical advice on what to do and what not to do. not do for their profession under the security law.
“There have been concerns from one or two members who have asked if we have ethical guidelines on the National Security Act,” company vice president Dr Stanley Chung told HKFP. “They asked if, under the security law, there were things they should pay more attention to.”
The company, however, had to refer its members to government information about the law. “I think the members do not understand all the content of the national security law, so we will refer to the government’s own information on the law, because we have no way to give them that direction,” a- he declared.
Other than questions, Chung told HKFP that he sees no palpable effect of the security law on the profession.
However, some psychologists tell a different story. Lack of guidance means each advisor is on their own trying to navigate the law to better protect themselves and their clients.
“The way this affects our work is subtle – it’s about self-censorship,” Jack said.
“Colleagues from different political positions are handling it differently,” said Ann, another clinical psychologist who works in the community. “After the security law, everyone’s awareness has definitely increased.
Even before the Security Act, case notes could be seized under a police warrant and advisers could be compelled to disclose those notes when summoned by city courts. Today, these risks are magnified by security law provisions that give the police greater powers to investigate alleged violations of national security, including the right to search private property without a warrant.
“Maybe it’s not that I’m consciously taking less notes, but if there is information that I don’t consider clinically relevant, I won’t write it down,” Candy, who worked as A counselor at one of the city’s higher education institutions for more than half a decade, HKFP said.
The tendency to be more careful in taking notes during sessions with clients was echoed by other counselors who spoke with HKFP.
“Right now, there are already things that clients don’t talk about… and I didn’t mean to urge them on, because our job is not to investigate. Our focus is on their emotional distress, ”Ann said.
This is especially the case among college-aged clients, many of whom have lived through the political turmoil of the past two years and have supported the now waning pro-democracy movement.
“Since the National Security Law, there has been an unspoken consensus between the students and me that we will not be talking about certain political issues,” said Candy.
The reluctance of students to discuss their feelings for fear of political repercussions is a continuation of a trend dating back to 2019, when the city erupted into pro-democracy protests that polarized society into two camps. But since the security law came into effect, Candy herself is wary of increased personal risks.
“I think there are legal and ethical implications, as I realize that students may have different interpretations and expectations of my role as a counselor,” said the clinical psychologist.
To continue providing support to clients despite these concerns, Ann and Candy are focusing more on their clients’ emotions and details that are clinically relevant, a strategy that Candy believes could hinder their ability to build trust with the client. client – in a relationship where mutual trust is crucial.
“Now I’m even more aware of clients who want to know my political position before they want to build trust with me,” she said. “Building trust takes time, so it may take longer for the client to understand that these things don’t matter and that I’m not judging them because of their opinions. But it makes it harder for some customers to trust us.
“Without confidence it is extremely difficult for psychological treatment to be effective,” said the practitioner.
Rampant self-censorship under the law is also felt by some local mental health NGOs in their collaborations with other organizations.
“We notice that some employees, especially companies, schools and other NGOs, are much more careful. For example, we cannot say certain words in interviews, we cannot wear certain face masks, ”a clinical psychologist who works for a local NGO told HKFP. They described these experiences as “frustrating”.
Fewer ways to ask for help
There are also concerns that the climate of uncertainty surrounding the new law will prevent people from seeking the help they need.
Candy said she noticed a notable drop in the number of students who would initiate political discussions after the security law came into effect.
Before the law came into force in June 2020, around a fifth of its student clients expressed concern about the city’s political climate. Subsequently, the number fell to less than five percent.
“It was obvious that under the National Security Law, fewer students were seeking emotional help related to political movement or social movement. Even if they were in distress, they can choose not to come to see us because they have confidentiality issues, ”said the psychologist.
The city’s university counseling centers told an HKFP reporter posing as a student that anything said in counseling sessions would be kept confidential unless there was an immediate threat.
The reluctance to seek psychological help in the current political climate also extends to public institutions, such as the Hospital Authority.
Speaking about the effects of the safety law on the healthcare sector, Ivan Law, vice president of the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance, told HKFP: “The patient may not be able to talk about his feelings about this. of the situation in Hong Kong, then you may not be able to understand why this situation is causing her emotions. So I think that’s one of the things that can hinder the relationship between patient and practitioner.
“In most situations, people are aware of this… they may not come to the hospital authority, they may find someone they trust, who has a similar position so that they can share their feelings freely. “, did he declare.
This tendency to seek advisers with similar political leanings emerged in 2019. But some of these sources of help have been shut down.
Psychologists Concern, a group that provided anonymous and pro bono counseling services to those affected by the 2019 pro-democracy protests, was one of many civil society groups to disband in early July.
Its founder, Ip Kim-ching, who openly said he provided pro-democracy protesters with trauma counseling during the 2019 protests, is currently under investigation by the ICAC over the elections. to the 2016 Legislative Council.
“Some psychologists have provided pro bono counseling services to people affected by social unrest and these service users could choose to remain anonymous,” said Jack. “The reason many people asked for help through them was that people were starting to lose faith in the public system and were worried that what they were saying would be leaked to the government or the police… We can’t just not say how many people are less willing to do it. seek help because of this mistrust.
Anne has also witnessed this reluctance to come forward. “I know of cases where people have refused to seek professional help, even when they are in great distress.”