Aspects: Breaking Down the 'Devil's Grip' on Mental Illness; Award-Winning Nurse Billy Ko, Formerly from Hong Kong, Tells Mel Hunter about His Work Convincing the Chinese Communities in This Country That Mental Health Problems Can Be Treated

By Hunter, Mel | The Birmingham Post (England), August 11, 2000 | Go to article overview

Aspects: Breaking Down the 'Devil's Grip' on Mental Illness; Award-Winning Nurse Billy Ko, Formerly from Hong Kong, Tells Mel Hunter about His Work Convincing the Chinese Communities in This Country That Mental Health Problems Can Be Treated


Hunter, Mel, The Birmingham Post (England)


When Billy Ko arrived in Britain from Hong Kong 35 years ago he didn't believe mental health problems existed.

Like others raised in the Chinese culture, Mr Ko saw common conditions such as schizophrenia and depression as being the work of the 'devil and spirituals' and therefore incurable.

Intriguing then, that he came to this country to work among the mentally ill - and that he is now successfully challenging attitudes to mental health problems among the Chinese community in the UK.

The 60-year-old was made an MBE earlier this year for his work, and last year was awarded the top national award for mental health nursing by the Royal College of Nurses and Nursing Standards magazine.

Last year, he was presented with a Millennium Award by the mental health charity Mind.

Forty years ago when he was living a 'teddy-boy lifestyle' in Hong Kong, such plaudits could not have been further from his mind. Then, working as an English teacher, life was more about motorcycles and making money than mental health.

But friends said he could have a better life in Britain and it was an advert in the South China Morning Post which swayed him. In a bid to claw some respectability and responsibility in to his life, he answered an advert for English-speakers to train as nurses in a Kent hospital.

Intent on studying at an English university, Mr Ko realised three years in Canterbury could provide his passport to a free British education.

There was only one problem with working with mentally ill people - Mr Ko did not believe that mental health problems existed as a medical condition.

Like millions of other Chinese people across the world, he believed that common mental health problems were the work of the devil and therefore could not be healed.

'When you come over here you come over with your own culture. At that time I did not believe there was such a thing as schizophrenia, for example,' he admits.

However, after four years in Canterbury he was converted. After marrying his wife, who he had grown up with in Hong Kong, the couple and their daughter moved to Birmingham in 1969.

Since then he has spent 30 years as a mental health worker in the city.

It is the last five years, however, which have been most important to Mr Ko. Based at Small Heath Health Centre, he has turned the focus of his work to help his own community.

He realised as he approached retirement that he had worked with thousands of people of all creeds and colours during his time in Birmingham - but that almost none of them had been Chinese.

He asked himself why he had never seen Chinese people in his working day. Could it be that they didn't suffer from mental illness?

The realisation dawned, however, that it was not because the Chinese community was immune from illnesses like schizophrenia, but that they did not realise they had a condition which could be recognised and treated.

'The Chinese do not believe in the words mental illness. When the going gets tough, they commit suicide rather than seek help. It is not just the uneducated people who think like that, it is graduates too.

'I discovered that three Chinese women who I knew of had committed suicide and I wanted to do something for the community before I retired,' explains Mr Ko. …

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