How China is finally waking up to mental health

By Katrin Büchenbacher Source:Global Times Published: 2018/11/12 17:18:39

China makes more mental health services available to satisfy the rising demand of depression patients seeking treatment. Photo: VCG

Enoch Li is the type of woman who draws attention. When she enters the English bookshop where she is about to meet this Metropolitan reporter, customers look up from their drinks.

Li sits down and orders a glass of hot water. She takes a deep breath, puts down her phone and starts talking about her depression. Just a few days ago, Li filled the large hall of the store with her own seminar. Who would have guessed that there had been a time where she felt unable to leave her apartment for weeks?

It all started with strong migraine headaches. Li was a high-achiever, so she first thought that she might just be stressed and tired from her job as a banker. However, the headaches became more intense and appeared more frequently. When Li's physician suggested she see a psychiatrist, she laughed.

"I was in denial for almost one year," she said. Finally, she gave in. The diagnosis: Severe clinical depression. Her reaction: "When do I go back to work?"

Li would have never thought that her journey to recovery would force her out of her successful banking career. That she'll hide away in her room for months. That she'll be in therapy for seven years. "At that time I didn't know what depression was and what it meant," she said.

The World Health Organization estimates that more than 54 million Chinese suffer from depression. According to the China Association for Mental Health, some 200,000 people commit suicide in China every year, a Reuters documentary cited.

In China, depression surpasses cancer and cardiovascular diseases and has become a primary public health hazard. Psychiatrists and scholars alike suggest that China's rapid economic modernization over the past three decades is the primary cause, putting more pressure on individuals.

Luckily, depression can be treated, and China is dedicated to doing so. In recent years, both the Chinese government, the private health sector, NGOs, local doctors and society have worked toward making mental health services more accessible to patients.

In late 2012, China passed its first mental health law. In 2015, the government announced a national five-year mental health work plan stating clear measures to promote the development of the mental health sector. For many Chinese, the hospital is the first instance they consult to seek treatment for depression.

Help is a click away

The Peking University Sixth Hospital, China's leading institute for mental health, opened a new special clinic for depression in early November 2018, reported. At this center, a variety of psychological and psychiatrist help services will become available to "help patients achieve functional improvement and return to professional positions."

However, mental care hospitals are not evenly distributed in China. With a lower density of hospitals, awareness of mental health seems to have decreased as well. Yuan Li, a counselor and lecturer of psychological education and training at the China Association for Mental Health, a government organization, told the Metropolitan that residents of China's first-tier cities have woken up to mental health and are eager to learn more.

Second and third-tier cities are on their way, while in rural areas misconceptions and superstition still control the public's perception of mental illnesses. Helplines and e-health applications make mental health services more accessible to remote areas, promoting awareness and lowering the entry barriers for people who seek help.

"Eight years ago, there was nowhere to go to treat depression except for the hospitals. Today, there are a plethora of services available," Yuan says.

Mobile app Jiandan Xinli ("Simple Psychology") matches individuals with therapists, offers online counseling and provides a platform for psychotherapy training courses. According to online magazine, over 100,000 people have already used the app as of January, 2017.

Student depression

Xu Xiong, who prefers using a pseudonym for fear of misunderstanding from his workplace and social environment, is one of them. The young man has been struggling with anxiety, sleeping problems and depression since 2011.

Getting treatment has not always been an accessible path for Xu, along with approximately 75 percent of other untreated Chinese, due to the imbalance of demand and resources.

"The psychiatrists I saw did not prescribe me any medication," Xu told Metropolitan. "Because my symptoms seemed inconclusive."

Instead, his doctors recommended psychotherapy, which was not covered by his insurance. During his studies, he met with a free on-campus psychological service for students every week. After graduation, he continued to self-diagnose, call helplines or use apps like Jiandan Xinli. Recently, he joined a group therapy session offered at Beijing University, but has to use the student ID of a friend.

"I can't afford to pay for a therapist," he said. His anxieties have prevented him from fulfilling his dream of studying abroad because he fears the lack of mental health services available overseas in Chinese.

"But in China, I can find the support I need," he said, adding that going to therapy has helped him be more flexible in his thinking and cope better with everyday life tasks, some as simple as riding the subway.

Play time helps both kids and adults in prevention and healing of depression, according to the book Stress in the City by Enoch Li. Photo: VCG

The importance of fun

For Enoch Li, her depression has been a blessing in disguise. The same illness that destroyed her well-paid banking career has given her a new purpose in life, allowing her to build her own business from scratch.

She later earned a second degree in organizational psychology. Today, Li consults for companies how to care for the mental health of their employees. Over the past three years, she noticed an apparent shift in local companies interested in the well-being of their employees.

"In the past, I had to knock on people's doors. This year, I started getting more and more inquiries from companies."

Li, who identifies the focus on achievement, stress at work and the absence of play in society as the leading causes for depression, anxiety and burnout, recently published a book titled Stress in the City.

In the book, Li tells how she came back from the edge by reconnecting with playfulness, which promotes learning, creativity, anxiety reduction and formation of resilience. The mother of two hopes that more Chinese parents will recognize the importance of fun and play for their children's well-being as well as their own.

"I am thankful for my depression. It told me so much about myself," Li said.

Newspaper headline: Under pressure


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