In a society that has traditionally attached the greatest importance to education and respect for age and learning, Chinese children often carry a heavy psychological burden.
Recent studies show that 30 million adolescents under the age of 17 in mainland China are suffering from depression or having behavioral problems, while one official newspaper reported that between 21.6 and 32 percent of China's primary- and middle-school students suffer from depression — ; a trend that has sharpened in recent years.
"It really is a problem when schools put too much pressure on children, making them mature too early," Mo Li, a former Chinese schoolteacher now based in Sweden, said in an interview. "The whole education system, from elementary to high school, prepares children for the university entrance examination, which has become the known as the 'gates of hell.'"
Mo said time for play, rest, and recreation had been stripped from the average Chinese child's day. "These children have to grow up without a childhood," she said.
Other experts agreed that parental pressure to succeed was behind the worrying development. "The hopes they pin onto their children... are too much for children to bear, not only in terms of pressure at school, but also in terms of mental pressure," said Wu Fang, a Chinese education expert now based in the United States. Wu said China's one-child population control policy also meant that parents now pinned all their hopes onto one child.
A less talked-about problem for China's youth is that of violence both at home and at school. Beijing mother Zhang Shufeng took her protest as far as Tiananmen Square after her six year-old daughter was beaten up by her elementary school teacher. The teacher's connections with local authorities ensured that Zhang, whose husband was beaten when he went to complain, has yet to see any redress on the issue.
Some point to fast-changing economic and social roles, working parents and a higher divorce rate as contributing factors. "The increased divorce rate, split families such as when the two parents work in different cities, and families constantly moving from city to city for work-related reasons are all possibly highly related to these social problems," Li Xiaorong, professor at the University of Maryland, said.
China's Ministry of Health has attempted to set up a psychological outreach project aimed at improving mental health problems for the country's school-age children. It has launched a campaign to raise public awareness on psychological and mental health issues among adolescents, and outlined plans to provide professional counseling and information to people with psychological disorders and mental illnesses who are unwilling or unable to seek help.
It also aims to provide education and counseling on psychological and mental health in schools and to improve guidelines on maintaining the mental health of students. Mental health crisis hotlines are planned for major cities for adolescents, the official Xinhua news agency reported. But it gave no details of how the nationwide plans would be implemented or paid for at local level.