The Ministry of Health blamed it on “mass hysteria”, reports Caijing magazine. Absent evidence of contamination there was no other plausible way to account for the panicky hospitalisation of hundreds of factory employees at a Jilin chemical factory.
The workers themselves don’t agree with the official description of a “socio-psychological phenomenon”. But it is perhaps more revealing that the authorities were even prepared to offer it as an explanation. Attitudes to stress and mental anxiety may be changing in China – and a hundred million Chinese could benefit from mental health treatment, says Huang Yueqin, the director of the National Centre for Mental Health. The World Health Organisation agrees that mental illness has now overtaken heart disease and cancer as the country’s biggest health burden.
Definitions are everything here, of course, as mental health afflictions can range from the deepest of psychosis through to some pretty mild status anxiety.
And clearly, we are not talking about a hundred million aspiring Hannibal Lecters, strolling around in newly purchased Panama hats.
Nevertheless, discussion of milder conditions – like anxiety disorders and depression – are beginning to creep into the domestic media.
Phoenix Weekly wondered earlier this month, for instance, if more Chinese may now be suffering from stress, especially in the workplace. The “stifling atmosphere” of demanding expectations from employers gets a mention – with an implicit comparison to the less onerous “iron rice bowl” employment conditions of the past.
But there are lots of problems with this analysis. Many would argue that most working environments should now prove more liberating (financially and psychologically) than in China’s impoverished and ideological recent past.
It is, perhaps, the kind of stress that differs. Phoenix Weekly points to pressure on the family unit as a key factor in complaints, as greater wealth and a growing sense of individualism begin to undermine traditional family bonds.
This often hits China’s elderly population hardest. With fewer children, themselves with less time to devote to the extended family, many parents and grandparents are just feeling increasingly lonely.
Don’t just blame capitalism for the growing sense of social dislocation, either. The one-child policy is also a culprit, not only in making the elderly feel isolated but also in ramping up familial expectations of the young.
For the “little emperor” generation, parental expectations can be intense. From a young age, academic achievement is a priority. A well-paid job, and the chance to seize the opportunities that modern China now seems to offer, is an expected outcome.
But the stress of chasing this dream can be intense, and many will go on to discover that it is not always achievable. China churns out far more school and university graduates than graduate entry jobs, for instance.
Social commentators are also starting to worry about the side effects of such single-mindedness, pointing to the millions who now escape into the imaginary worlds of video games and – much worse – to the fact that suicide is now the leading cause of death for the 20-35 year age group.
One hundred million sufferers or not, Huang at the National Centre for Mental Health admits that less than 5% are even aware that they may have a mental health condition. Even fewer actually go for treatment.
This will remain the case for some time, with very few mental health professionals in China. The Phoenix Weekly estimates that there are 4.6 qualified professionals per million of population. In the United States there is something closer to 550. A hangover, perhaps, from the Maoist view of mental illness as an incorrect appreciation of the class struggle.
But also no bad thing, some cynics might argue. Others might stretch the point further, pointing to the American need as much greater than their Chinese counterparts.
It’s possible, of course, that the Chinese aren’t really going mad at all. They are just on their way to becoming as miserable as the rest of the capitalist world.
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