Mental Health Cases Sweep China

China's mental health resources are woefully inadequate, and experts say they've never been in greater demand.

2009.03.11
Man Suicide Attempt 305 A Hangzhou rescue worker tries to coax a man off a footbridge, July 2007. The man jumps, but survives after his fall is broken by a roof.
AFP

HONG KONG—China is experiencing a surge of mental health problems as the global downturn begins to bite and workers are laid off, prompting calls from experts and politicians for a boost in fledgling mental health services.

“Ordinary people have need of it, with so many psychological difficulties, what with all the redundancies and with  university students having a hard time finding work, especially since the economic crisis hit,” former consultant psychiatrist Xu Yonghai said.

“China has seen a lot of improvements recently, with a large number of new doctors graduating, and a lot of new hospitals all developing their approach to mental health. But it is still nowhere near addressing the real level of demand,” Xu said, responding to an interview with local media by top army medic Fan Li.

...Mental health issues aren’t really taken that seriously in China."

Sun Ya

Fan Li, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) General Hospital deputy director, first raised the issue publicly last week, saying that China was experiencing a surge in the number of people with mental illness amid rapid social change and conflict.

Fan, who is also a delegate to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), cited official figures released at the beginning of the year showing that seven percent of China’s 1.3 billion population was now suffering from some kind of mental illness.

The majority of these cases were anxiety and depression, he said.

Younger and younger patients

Former consultant psychiatrist at Beijing’s Ping’An Hospital Xu Yonghai said the figures didn’t come as a surprise.

“I don’t think these figures are exaggerated,” Xu said. “It’s partly because Chinese people are unused to thinking in terms of mental health, especially in rural communities—they don’t even really know what it is.”

“When the rural migrant workers lose their jobs, their mood turns sour, and they think they are finished, and some of them try to commit suicide. It would never occur to them to seek out community or other services,” he said.

Fan noted a worrying trend among the statistics for those suffering from mental illness in China: mental health service users are getting younger and younger, with the youngest reported case aged just eight years old.

Currently, Chinese children account for 15-20 percent of children in the world with mental health problems, he said.

Sun Ya, who runs a health care blog for Xinlang, a popular Chinese news portal, said the problem was linked to China’s draconian family-planning policies.

“Nowadays, most kids are only sons or daughters of their parents ... This policy, which was conceived in response to massive population growth, has too many side-effects and is bound to cause some problems,” he said.

“They are really missing out on something if  they don’t have people to communicate with, to share feelings with, to study with. From the parents’ point of view, there is an even greater sense of pressure amid massive social change. This is bound to have an effect on the children,” Sun added.

“On top of that, you have the fact that mental health issues aren’t really taken that seriously in China, nor does anyone try to solve these problems, which just continue to mount up.”

Bad timing

The economic crisis has hit China at a time when there is still a severe lack of services to help those in mental distress.

Fan Li said that in 2005, there were only 572 institutions in the whole of China providing mental health services: just 1.4 beds per 10,000 head of population. China still has only one psychiatrist per 100,000 people.

The mental health profession is still in its infancy in China, which is home to just 14,000 psychiatrists and psychologists serving a population of 1.3 billion, the same number as France, with its population of 60 million.

But psychological counseling centers and hotlines have proliferated in recent years, with the relatively short-term, practical cognitive psychotherapy favored for people struggling to cope with external disaster.

Around 600,000 people are believed to be in need of psychological help in the southwestern province of Sichuan, a need highlighted in the national media following the devastating earthquake on May 12.

The worst gaps in mental health care are in rural areas, Xu said.

“There, if a person is mad, then they’re just mad,” said Xu, who noted that the prevalence of severe mental illness such as schizophrenia had remained constant in China, while more psychological difficulties such as anxiety and depression had spiked.

“Normal people with a nonmental illness have enough of a burden already. They can’t afford to see a doctor. Still less would they take the mad guy to see one,” he said, adding that the health care system in China was set up to care for civil servants, for officials.

“The average citizen benefits very little from it, especially in the countryside,” he said.

Original reporting in Mandarin by An Pei. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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