Hong Kong (CNN)On a hot summer night earlier this month, a few thousand people gathered in Hong Kong to honor a 28-year-old woman who many of them had never met.
Under the glow of Hong Kong‘s harbor-side Ferris wheel, they lit candles, sang songs, and left messages to her on colorful Post-it notes, calling her “brave.””We will accomplish what is left to be done,” wrote one.The death of the woman — known to most of the world by her last name, Mak — was the fourth suspected suicide to be connected by local media to ongoing demonstrations, sparked initially by a controversial extradition bill that many feared could further limit freedoms in the semi-autonomous city.The bill has been suspended, but over a period of just a few months the movement has developed into something bigger — and darker. Some demonstrations — including one on Sunday night — have ended in aggression, with protesters using metal barricades to charge police, and police firing rounds of tear gas to disperse protesters. Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingProtesters with placards reading “Strictly enforce the law, stop cross-border traders,” march in an area popular with Chinese tourists for its pharmacies and cosmetic shops, in Hong Kong, Saturday, July 13.Hide Caption 1 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingProtesters hold up signs that read: “Strict enforcing of law against smugglers of grey goods” in Hong Kong Saturday, July 13. Hide Caption 2 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingA police officer attacks protesters holding up umbrellas in Hong Kong Saturday, July 13.Hide Caption 3 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingProtesters attend a march at an anti-parallel trading in Sheung Shui district in Hong Kong on July 13.Hide Caption 4 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingPolice officers use pepper spray to disperse protesters after a rally in Sheung Shui district on July 13. Hide Caption 5 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingA demonstrator sprays paint inside a chamber at Hong Kong’s Legislative Council building, where protesters forced their way in on Monday, July 1.Hide Caption 6 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingWithin minutes of protesters taking a collective decision to exit the Legislative Council building, police fired tear gas and used baton charges to disperse the crowd.Hide Caption 7 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingPolice officers walk in tear gas as they break up the crowd.Hide Caption 8 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingA protester uses a megaphone to speak to other protesters inside the Legislative Council building.Hide Caption 9 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingThe meeting hall of the Legislative Council is taken over by demonstrators on July 1.Hide Caption 10 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingProtesters stream into the Legislative Council building.Hide Caption 11 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingPeople rally outside the Legislative Council on July 1.Hide Caption 12 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingA protester smashes a window of the Legislative Council building.Hide Caption 13 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingProtesters holding umbrellas face off with police officers wearing anti-riot gear on July 1.Hide Caption 14 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingPolice standing inside the Hong Kong government headquarters look through broken glass as protesters try to smash their way into the building on July 1.Hide Caption 15 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingColumns of sunlight are cast on a crowd during the march on July 1.Hide Caption 16 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingHelicopters carrying the flags of China and Hong Kong fly over demonstrators on July 1.Hide Caption 17 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingPro-democracy lawmaker Roy Kwong rallies demonstrators with a megaphone on July 1.Hide Caption 18 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingA protester holds up a placard as thousands flood the streets of Hong Kong on July 1.Hide Caption 19 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingA police officer uses pepper spray during a clash with protesters on July 1.Hide Caption 20 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingProtesters face police on July 1.Hide Caption 21 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingA protester wearing a T-shirt with the word “revolution” walks past an inscription on a road that reads “Long Live HK.”Hide Caption 22 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingPolice detain protesters near the government headquarters in Hong Kong on July 1.Hide Caption 23 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingA protester places anti-government posters at the traffic sign that indicates the entrance to the government complex building.Hide Caption 24 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingProtesters remove their shirts after being pepper-sprayed by police.Hide Caption 25 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingA man receives medical treatment during the protests on July 1.Hide Caption 26 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingAn overhead view shows thousands of protesters marching through a Hong Kong street on Sunday, June 16.Hide Caption 27 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingMany of those attending the rally on June 16 carried signs with the slogan “stop killing us” alongside images of bloodied protesters.Hide Caption 28 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingProtesters attend the rally on June 16.Hide Caption 29 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingA protester returns a tear-gas canister fired by police during clashes outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong on Wednesday, June 12.Hide Caption 30 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingRubber bullets, pepper spray and hand-thrown tear gas were used to push back protesters who had occupied the city’s main thoroughfare and other roads near the government headquarters on June 12, Hong Kong Police Commissioner Steven Lo Wai-chung said.Hide Caption 31 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingProtesters run after police fired tear gas on June 12.Hide Caption 32 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingA police officer reacts to an umbrella that was thrown near the Legislative Council building on June 12. The Umbrella Movement in 2014 galvanized Hong Kong’s youth and was mainly student-led. But lately there have been lawyers, business people and middle-aged people protesting for the first time.Hide Caption 33 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingPolice officers use a water cannon on a protester near the government headquarters.Hide Caption 34 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingProtesters shield themselves against pepper spray used by police.Hide Caption 35 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingPolice officers fire tear gas during the demonstration on June 12.Hide Caption 36 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingA protester reacts as she is grabbed by police on June 12.Hide Caption 37 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingPolice and protesters clash outside the Legislative Council building on June 12.Hide Caption 38 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingProtesters face off with police during the rally on June 12.Hide Caption 39 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingA protester rests during the demonstration on June 12. Protesters began arriving the night before.Hide Caption 40 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingBy the morning of June 12, tens of thousands of mainly young people had arrived in the area, blocking streets and bringing central Hong Kong to a standstill.Hide Caption 41 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingProtesters block major roads near the Legislative Council and government headquarters. Hundreds of businesses, parents and teachers called for a boycott of work and school to show their opposition to the extradition bill.Hide Caption 42 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingA demonstrator holds a sign during the June 12 rally.Hide Caption 43 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingPolice officers charge toward protesters during clashes on Monday, June 10. It was a continuation of protests that started the day before.Hide Caption 44 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingA protester reacts as police and demonstrators clash on June 10.Hide Caption 45 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingA police camera films the rally on Sunday, June 9.Hide Caption 46 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingProtesters hold pictures of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam on June 9.Hide Caption 47 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingProtesters on June 9 waved placards and wore white — the designated color of the rally. “Hong Kong, never give up!” some chanted.Hide Caption 48 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingDemonstrators hold signs during the protest on June 9.Hide Caption 49 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingA crowd fills a Hong Kong street on June 9.Hide Caption 50 of 51 Photos: In pictures: Hong Kong protesters storm government buildingStudents wear chains during a demonstration on Saturday, June 8.Hide Caption 51 of 51Read MoreProtesters have talked of sacrifice, hopelessness, and a loss of trust in their leaders. The four who died have become fixtures in protest art and been treated by some demonstrators as heroes of the cause.But experts warn that this kind of rhetoric is risky. With many protesters in their teens and early twenties in a city where mental health support is lacking, they warn that treating protesters as heroes could be putting others in danger. The fight for Hong KongThe movement to block the extradition bill has been cast as a binary life or death struggle from the outset. When at least hundreds of thousands — up to a million by some measures — marched at the start of June, it was described by activists as the “last chance to fight for Hong Kong.” The deaths of the protesters only added to that intensity. Mourners in Hong Kong place flowers and offer prayers on June 16, 2019, at the site where a protester died.At demonstrations, protesters created banners from yellow raincoats, giving the illusion that the first death by suicide, a 35-year-old man who died wearing a distinctive yellow raincoat, was floating above them. Protesters wore black and waved black flags to honor the dead. In the mass outpouring of grief, some protesters pointed the finger at the government. For a time, a blood-red placard became ubiquitous. It read: “Stop killing us.””He sacrificed a lot for us,” a 16-year-old schoolgirl, who only gave her name as Athena, said of the man at one of the marches. “This is related to the political system of Hong Kong — it’s life-threatening and it’s fateful.”In places around the city, demonstrators held memorials for the dead. They piled flowers on footpaths that formed little mountains of white and plastic, and left notes to the dead that they would never read.”Dear Hero, we will fight for you,” read one on a piece of white paper decorated with a heart. “He was dragged down by the regime,” read another.Protesters hold placards during a demonstration against the now-suspended extradition bill on June 16, 2019 in Hong Kong. Those lost to suicide became fixtures in protest art, too. One showed the 35-year-old man and another victim holding hands as they walked toward the light with the words: “Friend, don’t leave. Hong Kong people, don’t give up.” Even messages that didn’t depict the protesters took on a darker tone. “If we burn, you burn with us,” read a huge, deep-red banner.Among some protesters, death was a point of discussion. “Die for Hong Kong,” some protesters could be heard chanting. A manifesto shared on Telegram — an encrypted app used widely during the protests — thanked “heroes who pay their blood and their lives.”Protest posters depict a 35-year-old suicide victim in Admiralty, Hong Kong, on July 1, 2019. The one on the left reads: “Friend, don’t leave, Hong Kong people, don’t give up.” On the right: “No one can be lacking, we need to work hard together.”At a press conference, pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo called on protesters to “drop the martyr mentality.” “We need to remind them that it is not worth it. Time is always on the side of the young,” she said.The problem is, the young don’t necessarily feel like that. Why things turned darkHong Kong is a city familiar with protests. But the protests haven’t always been like this movement.In 2014, pro-democracy protesters occupied Hong Kong’s inner city streets for 79 days. Although there were scuffles, it was largely peaceful and optimistic and the protesters — among them, many high-school students — sang songs, set up supply tents and even created areas to do their homework. Hope was in the air. There was a sense that democracy might finally be possible.Hong Kong has never had complete democracy. When the former British colony was handed over to China in 1997, Beijing promised to maintain Hong Kong’s freedoms for the next 50 years. Many see Hong Kong as having less than 30 years left until it becomes another mainland Chinese city, without the right to things like freedom of assembly and free speech that they’ve enjoyed in the past. Students do their homework at a study area occupied as part of the Umbrella Movement on October 10, 2014, in Hong Kong.Despite the optimism of the 2014 movement, when it ended, none of its aims had been achieved. Key protest leaders were imprisoned and, in the following years, enthusiasm for protests waned.So when protesters took to the streets earlier this year, they released years of suppressed anger and distrust of the government, according to Samson Yuen, a political scientist at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University.That anger was soon exacerbated. Police have fired pepper spray, tear gas and rubber bullets, actions which have been seen by protesters as heavy handed. Although Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam suspended the bill, she has repeatedly refused to withdraw it or respond to other demands, such as an independent inquiry into police actions. The four suspected suicides added another emotional element — especially because many saw the deaths as the fault of the government, said Yuen. “The protest is about the life and death of Hong Kong,” he said. “The protests are about continuing the wishes of those who ‘gave their lives.'”It’s about how people trust the system, how people can still have confidence about the future of Hong Kong.”At a press conference earlier this month, Hong Kong’s leader Lam said she was saddened by the protesters who had hurt themselves as a result of the bill. She added that the government had asked many non-governmental organizations to offer emotional consultation services, “hoping to ease the negative emotions that plague the Hong Kong society.” Police fire tear gas at protesters outside the Legislative Council Complex in the early hours of July 2, 2019 in Hong Kong, China. A 34-year-old protester, who asked not to be named, said he joined the protests after seeing the “brutal” police actions on June 12 — and was given “faith and courage” by the death of the first protester on June 15. “The death of (the protester) forced people to acknowledge our city’s government has changed,” he said. “Our impression of a government that cares for the people is shattered.””We chose to ignore it for years that our city is slowly changing. But this time, we can’t.”A hopeless future?The bleak language — and spate of deaths — has lawmakers and mental health experts worried.Paul Yip, the director for the Hong Kong Jockey Club Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention (CSRP), was concerned about the risk of copycat suicides, and the effect the negative atmosphere could have on youth who are suffering from pre-existing mental health issues. Yip cautioned that turning people who may have had mental health issues already into martyrs risked glamorizing suicide, which could create a contagion effect.”These people … are the victims of a mentally stressed environment,” he said. People hold flowers in the rain ahead of a memorial service on July 11, 2019, in Hong Kong, for a protester who died.He was also concerned about the way the media has reported on the deaths, which he believed could encourage others to take their lives. Some local media outlets have simplified the reasons behind suicide and referenced suicide methods — both things that are discouraged by the World Health Organization‘s suicide reporting guidelines, as they could trigger suicidal ideation in vulnerable readers. In 2017 — the latest year for which there is data — Hong Kong’s estimated age-standardized suicide rate was 9.5 out of every 100,000, compared with 10.5 globally. Between 2015 and 2017, Hong Kong’s overall suicide rate trended downward, while the the suicide rate for those aged 15 to 24 has gone up, according to data from CSRP.And there’s evidence that mental health in the city has been negatively impacted by the protests. Clarence Tsang, executive director of Samaritans Befrienders Hong Kong, said his organization had seen 73 calls in June by people distressed about the social movement, compared to only a handful on this topic in the previous months. “Most of them are feeling hopeless, said that there is no way out, they didn’t see a future,” he said, adding that some were sad about the deaths, while others were upset by family tensions over the movements.People offer prayers during a vigil in Hong Kong on July 6, 2019, in memory of the four protesters who died.Recent Hong Kong University Faculty of Medicine research found there was a 9.1% increase in the prevalence of probable depression among participants surveyed between June 22 and July 7 compared with the baseline in 2011 to 2014. The study showed probable depression had been increasing in the city over the past few years, from 5.3% during 2014’s Occupy Central movement to 6.1% in September 2017, three years after the failed movement ended.In the face of all the negativity, some people in Hong Kong have rallied around each other. Candice Powell, a clinical psychologist, has set up a hotline for journalists who have been traumatized by the violence they have seen. Lawmaker Roy Kwong — a former social worker — has emerged as a volunteer, on-call support person to protesters. In so-called Lennon Walls around the city, protesters have written notes on Post-its, spurring each other on. “Dear Hong Kong, everything will be alright,” read one.People walk in front of a so-called “Lennon Wall” where messages of support have been left for anti-extradition bill protesters on July 1, 2019 in Hong Kong.Yong Pui-tung, the 28-year-old best friend of Mak, said others should talk more and not to feel alone.”I’m really afraid there will be more and more, and I don’t want to see that kind of thing happen again,” she said. “We should all talk more to our friends — you shouldn’t feel alone because everyone is with us.”Hong Kong people, we stand as one and we should stay strong.” Kwong, meanwhile, urged protesters to think of the future, which he didn’t believe was as negative as many expected. “I think people need to keep a normal, calm attitude,” he said. “They need to know this is a continuous fight.”How to get help: In the US, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. In Hong Kong, call +852 2896 0000 for The Samaritans or +852 2382 0000 for Suicide Prevention Services. The International Association for Suicide Prevention and Befrienders Worldwide also provide contact information for crisis centers around the world.