SSince the Covid lockdown in Shanghai began, Hu Bojun has received numerous inquiries about her and her hospital’s counseling services. This month, the American-trained clinical psychologist began facilitating lockdown support groups – in English and Chinese – for clients from “all walks of life.”
“Even people from different socio-economic sectors are now participating [counselling] together… My old customers have come back and there are also many more new customers, ”she says, adding that many more Chinese have started talking to her about their mental stress and loneliness in a time of extreme insecurity.
Mental health support is now a highly sought-after service in China with more than 400 million citizens estimated to be below some degree of lockdown. The Chinese search engine Baidu last week registered a huge increase in searches for “psychological counseling” since March.
Although Covid has dominated news headlines for the past two years, mental illness is yet another crisis that is changing the lives of millions of Chinese families. 54 million people in China experience depression and about 41 million suffer from anxiety disorders, According to the WHO. These are two of the most prevalent mental disorders in the country.
Mental problems become a growing problem as China gets older. Many senior citizens experience loneliness when children move away to build their future in the big cities. In a study from 2021, researchers found a gripping link between the elderly’s suicide rate and camaraderie. They found that the rate drops by 8.7% during the annual lunar new year when older people receive unusually high levels of family companionship.
Other age groups, especially young people, are also affected by loneliness and isolation. According to recent studies, several Chinese middle school students have experienced insomnia, depression and anxiety during the pandemic. In 2020, a large-scale Chinese study found that almost 35% of respondents had experienced mental illness during the height of the pandemic.
‘My parents thought I was just thinking too much’
But until recent years, mental health was not a much discussed topic in Chinaand those who experienced mental illness were often misunderstood or stigmatized, says Li Yue, a 20-year-old university student in Luoyang in central China.
When Li was diagnosed with major depression in 2018, her family was confused. Depression was not a well-known vocabulary in the part of China she came from, and her parents did not know how to react.
“My parents thought for a long time that I was just thinking too much. Sometimes they agreed with me to get treatment, and sometimes they opposed it. At first I was very lost and later became desperate. I did not know what to do, and this feeling lasted a long time, ”she recalls.
That was four years ago. Last year, a number of popular culture productions dealing with mental illness were shown in China. First, a Broadway show Next to Normal got people talking about bipolar disorder. The musical toured in Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou. A documentary was also aired to accompany the tour. Then a few months later, a 40-episode TV series, Psychologisttriggered conversation about mental health.
Also in 2021, several art exhibitions were held aimed at raising public awareness of mental health in China. In Shanghai, a collection of abstract art at the No 600 Gallery showing works by patients with mental illness went viral. State-owned news agencies reported on it and on social media, a related hashtag was seen more than 70 m walk.
Help on the horizon
Some enterprising people have also seized the opportunity. Hu says some of her friends have rolled out online courses for people who want to be therapists. They also use mobile apps to virtually connect help seekers with therapists. “Even in smaller cities, there are plenty of coaches to help cope with community pressure,” Hu says.
But despite the growing awareness, the issue of infrastructure and resources is still an issue. Li says that when she was in the hospital, she saw many patients but too few doctors. Her experience reflects a 2017 report from the WHO, which found that there were fewer than nine psychiatric professionals for every 100,000 people in China.
The government has taken some steps to resolve the issue. In its nationwide Healthy China campaign that began in 2019Beijing acknowledged the growing scale of mental health problems in China and promised to provide at least 80% of patients suffering from depression access to treatment by 2030.
The diagnosis four years ago proved to be a major turning point for Li and her family. After years of treatment and counseling, Li’s life has begun slowly but steadily to get back on track. “It changed the way I look at things and myself,” she says. She is now majoring in psychology at the university.