A comedy that’s no joke

New film shines a light on mental illness in the Middle Kingdom

A comedy that’s no joke

Zhang Jingchu: challenging role

For years Hollywood has exploited mental illness as a grim dramatic device. Schizophrenia, sociopathy and delusional behaviour have been used repeatedly as springboards for films as varied as A Beautiful Mind, The Silence of the Lambs and even Bond thrillers (never complete without a resident megalomaniac).

Chinese cinema is now ready to tackle the sensitive subject matter. A new movie Side A, Side B, is reckoned to be the country’s first black comedy to deal with the issue of mental illness. Starring Zhang Jingchu (who will soon appear in The Tangshan Earthquake) and Yuan Wenkang, Side A Side B tells the tale of a man wrongly put in a mental hospital, and his relationships with the doctors.

Director Ning Ying told Jiefang Daily she hopes the film – which opens on April 8 – will help raise awareness of mental illness in China.

For centuries, mental illness has been one of the most enduring social taboos in Chinese culture, and most people have responded to it in the simplest way – by ignoring it.

In fact, from the late 1960s, Maoist thought attributed any mental incapacity to an incorrect appreciation of the class struggle. Many mentally-ill patients were taken from hospitals and sent to labour camps because of their ‘counter-revolutionary’ behaviour.

But recent statistics show that the problem is just too big to ignore. A study published by the China Population Communication Centre says that nearly 60% of college students in Beijing feel isolated and depressed, and 50% were not content with their lives, which often leads to internet addiction and even suicides.

“I’m not surprised by the survey results at all,” says a college student surnamed Xu. “On the one hand, most college students are from the post-1980 generation [i.e. born after the onset of the reform era] who don’t have tough minds. On the other, they are indeed facing the pressure of life.”

China’s National Centre for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that the country has 173 million people suffering from one form of mental illness or another, of which 158 million have never received any professional treatment, says Science Weekly.

Today, China’s mental health professionals still fall short. The China Daily reckons that there are only 11 hospital beds and fewer than two psychiatrists for every 100,000 people in the nation, compared to the world average of 43 beds and four doctors. So, mental illness is often diagnosed and treated by general practitioners, who readily prescribe anti-depressant pills.

As for counselling and other therapies, the profession is still finding its way. According to the Economist, one of the country‘s biggest training programmes is designed and managed by the same labour bureaucracy that regulates credentials for chefs, drivers and mechanics.

Meanwhile, serious mental health casee have also been inadequately addressed. That has led to a series of tragedies of troubled patients going too long without supervised care.

Take Chen Wenfa. The 21 year-old man was arrested in December, suspected of killing his entire family. Chen apparently sought help at the Kunming Psychiatric Hospital in August and was diagnosed with acute schizophrenia, but he was sent home without any follow-up from health officials.

Wen Tiequan, a villager from Inner Mongolia, killed himself in a mountain cave after he was named the chief suspect in the stabbing of six villagers in November. Police said Wen had mental problems, but he was not properly treated because his family was too poor and did not take his illness seriously. Instead, they sent him to witch doctors for help, which only made his condition worse.

Many experts say the biggest barrier to treatment is social stigma. “Families with children suffering from mental problems tend to keep it confidential until it becomes impossible to hide,” says Professor MR Phillips, executive director of the Beijing Psychological Crisis Centre.

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