August 20, 2015, by Tony Hong

Mental Health in China – A Westerner’s perspective

By Nicola Swain,

Student of UNNC Summer School 2015.

Around the world we are becoming increasingly more aware of the impact of mental health problems on people and society. In the UK it is predicted that 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem at some point. In China less is known about the state of mental health amongst the population. China’s government estimate that 100 million Chinese suffer from a mental illness. Therefore just under 10% of the population will possibly be in need of mental health support. This can come in many forms and can be provided through trained counsellors, or through self-help and an increase in support from family and friends.

The Shanghai Women’s Federation found a majority of the city’s families to be grappling with pressure and serious stress. Yet only 2% of respondents acknowledged seeking professional therapy, while only 19% said they would ever consider it. This has implications in itself as there is clearly a stigma associated with professional treatment, but also this indicates that in major cities considerably more than 10% may be battling mental health issues. Data is not publicly available therefore it is difficult to determine the total scale, but it does however appear to be on the increase.

Development in China has brought new challenges for the government, with dramatic changes in family structure as children or parents go to urban areas alone for work or education. Furthermore the effect of the one child policy means that children are suffering loneliness as well as their parent’s expectations all on their own shoulders.

There needs to be a focus on the training of mental health professionals. WHO states that there are only 0.18 working psychologists per 100,000 people, while in the UK this increases to 12.84. Furthermore there are only one-tenth the number of certified psychiatrists as the number in western countries. The UK by no means has an excellent standard of mental healthcare, and China should really consider the western problems with mental healthcare as it approaches its own.

The Chinese government are improving. Reports suggest that around 15% of Chinese children have mental health problems, and so the government have been promoting mental health information in Beijing nurseries and schools since 2012. There has been an increase in the training of pediatricians in identifying the signs of mental illness in children. This is a good place to start to help the young generation, where anxiety disorders in particular are on the rise. This however tends to be focused on urban areas and issues in rural areas are not being addressed. 50% of children suffer depression or anxiety in rural areas when parents leave to work in the city, and many of these children are reunited once a year at best, and with lower levels of access to healthcare and average incomes lower there is little being done, and the higher rural suicide rates reflect this.

There are also issues even if more trained mental health professionals were supplied to all regions of China in a mass scale in that some styles of western therapy does not work in the Chinese culture, especially when understanding the effects of social relationships heavily based on culture. Therefore universities and psychologists need to devote time and money into identifying Chinese theories and practices.

While China is a unique state in itself, if you look close by at the developed countries of Japan and Korea these countries have some of the highest suicide rates in the world. In 2009 suicide and depression cost the Japanese government $32bn. Korea has a suicide rate of 26.1 per 100,000, with China at 20 per 100,000, and an extremely high suicide rate in rural areas compared to urban areas. China needs to act to ensure it does not follow the path of Korea and Japan in this respect.

The problem of mental illness will not simply disappear in China with further development. Even in western cultures it is ingrained in society and only through the proper implementation of mental health services, destroying cultural taboos and improving public knowledge of how to help can it be reduced. China’s economy will be affected with workers and students under such a high pressure, but this is one of the many challenges the Chinese government must face into the future.

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