Health worry

Why are a quarter of young Chinese depressed?


New survey says 7% of adolescents in China are “severely depressed”

A quarter of Chinese teenagers are depressed; young adults experience the greatest levels of anxiety; and women should be given more mental health support during pregnancy.

These are just some of the findings from China’s second nationwide mental health survey, whose results were made public last week.

While the report doesn’t give numbers for people suffering from psychological disorders in the overall population, it identifies a number of ‘at risk’ groups who are under undue stress or less likely to receive the mental health support they need.

In particular it focuses on the children and young adults, making it clear that pressures at work and school are causing huge damage.

The survey found that 25% of Chinese adolescents were found to be depressed, 7% of whom were severely depressed. The numbers, gathered pre-Covid, are not widely out of line with those in the UK or the US, though one of the study’s authors, Lu Jin of Kunming First Medical University, suggested they might not reflect the true scale of the problem because Chinese people have a low awareness of mental health issues.

“Many Chinese people have difficulty expressing emotions,” she told the Global Times.

The report also found that adults aged between 18 and 35 are the group with the highest levels of anxiety, caused by long work hours and the pressure to succeed in life.

This finding was backed up by the creation of an online group called “Working Time” last week which is trying to overturn the widely-criticised ‘996’ working culture – i.e. clocking in 9am to 9pm, six days a week – with a 995 schedule. To do so they have created a public spreadsheet where people can log their working hours in an attempt to name and shame employers enforcing unhealthy work practices. So far over 6,000 workers have provided their data.

China has had a patchy relationship with treating mental health problems over the centuries. Documents from the Tang Dynasty over a thousand years ago show some monasteries did run asylums for the insane but it was only in 1917 that psychology was formally recognised as a subject worthy of study, with the creation of a dedicated department at Peking University. Then under Mao Zedong the practice of psychology and psychiatry was essentially outlawed over fears they were Western imports designed to weaken the country – a belief that continued to colour thinking until very recently.

Now, however, Beijing seems determined to improve provisions for mental health treatment, recognising that failure to do so has led to many of the social issues it is now trying to fix: examples include young adults opting out of conventional lifestyles (see WiC544 for more on the ‘lying flat’ phenomenon) and suicide among children.

In March it established a Centre for National Mental Health directly under the control of the National Health Commission and ordered that all schools monitor their pupils’ psychological wellbeing.

In September – as regular readers of WiC will know – Beijing also slashed the amount of homework and extracurricular study children can be given in order to free up more time for sleep and exercise. These were two of the Mental Health Survey’s main recommendations too.

Similarly in August the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security and the Supreme Court publicised 10 ‘real life’ cases to demonstrate situations where the 996 work culture is illegal.

“The [mental health] survey shows people are more satisfied with the quality of material life represented by housing and cars etc, while satisfaction in other aspects (family life and physical health) and overall satisfaction are slightly lower,” the survey noted.

It also noted that people with limited education, often from poor rural areas, were less able to identify mental illness, and that depression in pregnant women was often overlooked.

Another worrying finding is that doctors only recognised about 20% of people suffering from depression, meaning that awareness is low even within the medical community. There is still a huge shortage of professionals in the fields as well – two psychiatrists per 100,000 people compared to 11 in Russia and 12 in the US, according to Xinhua.

One positive finding was that mental health awareness in general has increased over the last 10 years. People – especially the better educated – were more likely to offer support to others or seek out treatment if they felt unwell themselves. This is borne out by a recent surge in membership of online counselling platforms such as Yixinli and Yidianling with a combined membership of 32 million.

But sadly these platforms also suffer from a chronic shortage of qualified staff.

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