AsiaXPAT: When did you first arrive in Hong Kong?
Barry Connell: I came here in 1989 with the army. I was a military psychiatrist and this was my first consultant job.
AS: So you were in the British army?
BC: Yes, I was actually in the army part time even before medical school in Northern Ireland, where I grew up.
AX: I assume in the military that psychiatric issues would be quite different than the general public.
BC: I was stationed in Germany my first year and it was peacetime so it was the cold war and an infantry type of job where they were kind of pretending the third world war might start. We were also dealing with combat veterans from the Falklands War as well as some of the acute casualties of Northern Ireland.
AX: I seem to recall hearing back in the early 90’s that the three most stressful cities to live in the world were Beirut, Belfast and Hong Kong.
BC: That was actually my quote in the South China Morning Post in 1990 during an interview about stress in Hong Kong. In retrospect, I don’t know if I was really qualified to say anything, having never been to Beirut.
AX: In retrospect, Hong Kong was the only one of the three at the time not under siege. But what was it you found the first time around in Hong Kong as far as the levels of stress?
BC: I think by nature it was similar to today. Hong Kong is obviously a financial city. I left the army and went into private practice in the summer of 1990 and a lot of my patients were business people and their families. It’s a high intensity city and people come here to succeed and work hard.
AX: Right and that is why there is no Bohemian element because you have to be busy making money.
BC: But even the artists have to be go-go-go.
AX: When we talk about artists, they are inherently more reflective. But the pace of Hong Kong does not lend itself to casual reflectiveness.
BC: No, not in that sense. But I mean who comes here for reflection? They can go to Goa or Bali. I recall that nobody in the army medical department wanted to come here when there was an opening. I wanted to come because I saw William Holden in Suzy Wong and I was intrigued by the place. It seemed so incredibly exotic. Mind you, the reality was a wee bit different when I came.
AX: And after 11 years in Hong Kong you decided to not only leave town but to leave the profession as well.
BC: Yes my wife Anji and I moved to Paris for a year and I did this training as a chef.
AX: Training as a chef at the Hotel Ritz in Paris? Not exactly a lateral career move.
BC: Well I sort of did ok professionally and saved up enough to have a career break. In my job in Hong Kong I was often working with people who I was telling, when is enough enough? I mean you are pretty well off do you really want to be doing this until you fall over or until you are too old? Do you think about having a more balanced life? I was always preaching that and around 1998-99 I started to think, jeez I am going to have to start taking my advice here? So I thought only one life, why not do something different right?
AX: Is work/life balance kind of more an issue in Hong Kong than other places?
BC: Probably not more but Hong Kong, the city of London, Wall Street, those type of places I would think it’s an issue. The reality is that in finance, international law and even medicine, they kind of say, if you can’t hack it don’t do it. It’s kind of the take no prisoners’ type of environment. So a lot is said about work/life balance but in reality how much of it is adhered to is another question.
AX: The pace here is so quick you get swept up and don’t notice. You wake up one day and say, damn, have I been here ten years? Twenty years? I guess I have.
BC: Yes I think that was the reality for me. Our time in Paris attending the Ritz was a nice pace of life and eating and drinking and living in the city was a complete change. I moved to England after a year and I lived between London and a place called Norfolk on the sea. It had been a good antidote but then part of me liked the city so we decided to make it back to Hong Kong after being gone for 11 years.
AX: Was your transition back relatively seamless?
BC: Yes, there is a lot more energy about the place now it seems then there was 15 or 20 years ago. It does exist in places like London as well but it’s more concentrated here and it’s quite stimulating. Since I got back I am constantly meeting interesting people. It’s more cosmopolitan now.
AX: It seems an absurd notion but is there guilt amongst people who have made a lot of money? Does it seem kind of indulgent if they come see you?
BC: No I don’t think by nature people who make a lot of money go around feeling guilty about it. I mean coming to see me would be an indulgence in itself. Usually wealthier people come because when they get wealthier their lives become more complicated, not less complicated.
AX: And you can never be sure of the motives of people around you.
BC: Right and you get things in the paper about family disputes and it is almost always over money.
AX: How prevalent is depression in Hong Kong?
BC: There have been studies and it is probably similar to the rest of the world. Our practice would be about 70% expatriate and there is a lot of unhappiness and depression but it happens throughout the world. Also understand that depression is obviously more common with unemployment. The development in psychology over the last 15 years in trying to have contentment and happiness and research suggest that money does not buy happiness. What buys is it is having purpose and reason and also being nice to people. It pays dividends.
AX: So should people only come to you if they have problems? Or should they come to make their life fuller as well?
BC: I am not necessarily a positive psychologist in that sense. People generally come to people like me with problems and whether they have some sort of a medical issue or depression to help them solve that. But go beyond that? A part of the treatment is to make sure that you are just not fixed on the negative. It’s not like they were always depressed, they must not just focus on the negative use of their other abilities and strengths.
AX: Is there a guru of positive phycology, someone perhaps to read?
BC: Yes Martin Seligman. Refer to Ted Talks and there are a number of symposiums there. Seligman does talk to all these big guys and leaders in design and philosophy.
AX: Was there ever a time in Hong Kong where there was a stigma about people seeking professional help?
BC: I think there still is. There is also a stigma in the UK and other parts of the world. It's moved on a lot but it still exists. Again we are seeing less resistance to it now then before. And certainly locally and in the Chinese community there is more acceptance of the need for professional help then when I first started in the early 90’s.
AX: What about for some of our readers who feel they may need help but don't know where to turn for it. What sort of advice could you give them?
BC: Normally you would have a trusted doctor, a sort of GP person who would know what's going on. That's the starting point in the UK, usually the family doctor. But not everybody has that sort of person here that you know and knows you well enough. If you have issues and think it may be depression or more serious stuff that you want to talk to somebody, you would approach people like St. Johns counseling service. They have a good bunch of people and they also have a sliding scale, they will help people in relation to their income.
AX: How prevalent are addiction issues around here?
BC: Addiction is an issue with alcohol and drugs. I have some friends who work in the markets and they think there is more cocaine consumed here than in New York or London. Another interesting thing about this place, with the large expat population and all the disposable income, there is not one proper psychiatric private establishment for drug treatment here. Not one.
AX: No Betty Ford type clinics or rehab houses? Apparently we outsource that here.
BC: Yes, you can go to some little places in Thailand or bigger ones in London and the US. And there are few individuals that can help here but by and large there is nothing in Hong Kong and it is quite an amazing gap really.
AX: You did a series of interviews and analysis for BBC 3 with British boxing champ Nigel Benn. How are some of the things you learned from him applicable in other fields?
BC: I think a lot of the successful and wealthy people I have met over the years, and Nigel as well, are driven by some sort of need to do better and often driven by insecurities. Like a lot of these guys, Nigel became an emperor; he could have anything he wanted, anytime, anywhere. And he got his life completely out of control and he did actually try at one point to kill himself.
AX: It is ironic in the world of sport they can train you for everything but success. Have you spent much time working with athletes?
BC: Not specifically.
AX: It seems everybody is an expert these days; it’s kind of like punditry run amok. Is it tough not to weigh in with your two cents when you see something like the Tiger Woods scandal?
BC: I think it is easy to weigh in on these very public cases. But I also think there is a long and noble history of doctors or psychiatrists making a diagnosis from a distance and getting it wrong. They make noble sport of it. They get into courts on murder trails and have psychiatrists go in and pontificate on people that they have personally never seen and get it spectacularly wrong. I believe you can't properly diagnose on people that they don't personally see.
AX: So what became of your cooking career?
BC: I worked in Paris and got my qualifications and then I worked for Gordon Ramsay in London for few months.
AX: And how was the notoriously prickly Mr. Ramsay to work for?
BC: Very generous to me.
AX: Not the guy we see on TV then?
BC: That’s an exaggerated version. It was a great experience with him but it was the hardest work I ever did in my life, from dusk till dawn in the kitchen.
AX: So psychiatry is officially your calling?
BC: I have a number of interests but I realized what kind of work I was supposed to do. I mean, it's the balance thing right?