Progress on depression slow in China as stigmas persist

Kerry Yang speaks openly to foreigners about the bouts of depression that have haunted her for a decade — her emotional meltdowns in college, the bruises she inflicted upon her body as a coping mechanism, her initial unsuccessful attempts at treatment.

Yet despite such candor, the 30-year-old public relations consultant from Beijing often can’t bring herself to discuss her problems with her fellow Chinese, including members of her own family.

“There’s a saying in China that if you display your emotions, you display weakness,” Yang said.

Depression as an illness went widely unacknowledged for decades in China, even as the brutalities of the Cultural Revolution and, more recently, frenetic economic growth left emotional scars. Public attitudes have shifted in recent years, propelled in part by the adoption of the nation’s first mental health law five years ago.

Yet Yang’s case underscores that change is coming slowly within a society that traditionally viewed symptoms such as anxiety, sleeplessness or loss of appetite as isolated physical problems, not signs of mental disorder.

Families in China have been known to lock mentally ill relatives in cages or keep them in shackles for years because they were unable or unwilling to seek help. A rash of high-profile stabbings by perpetrators who were reportedly mentally ill over the past decade further highlighted the dearth of mental health services.

“Number one, it’s probably not recognized and number two, if you have these problems it’s personal, so ‘take care of it on your own,'” said Michael Phillips, a professor of psychiatry at Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine.

More than 50 million people in the world’s most populous country suffer from depression, according to the World Health Organization, which has made depression its signature issue for 2017. Apart from the toll on the afflicted, depression results in an estimated $8 billion in annual losses to productivity from missed work days, medical expenses and other costs, said WHO China representative Bernhard Schwartlander.

China’s 2012 mental health law, almost three decades in the making, marked a major breakthrough. It gave political support to what was conceded to be a growing problem, invited collaboration from outside experts and restricted involuntary confinement of the mentally ill except in extreme circumstances —a provision critics say still is sometimes ignored in the case of dissidents.

Previously, more than 90 percent of those with mental disorders had never sought any kind of professional help, according to a 2009 study by Phillips and several colleagues.

The new law placed schizophrenia and other psychological conditions out in the open, by expanding available treatments beyond psychiatric hospitals to include community-based services and encouraging scientific research. There’s also been growing realization that mental illness can be just as burdensome to society as other chronic illnesses such as…

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