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In modern China, eye on mental health

Most psychotherapists and counselors are setting up shop as Chinese struggle with the demands of a rapidly changing society and the profession loses its stigma.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 13, 2007



Beijing

The neutral colors, anodyne landscape paintings, and diplomas ranged on the windowsill make Tian Guoyan's office much like a psychological counselor's clinic anywhere else in the world.

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But this is China, where only 20 years ago, recalls Canadian psychiatrist Michael Phillips, his local colleagues hid their work from neighbors who feared that mental illness was infectious, and thought that such doctors would have caught it from their patients.

Ms. Tian is pioneering a new and rapidly growing profession in China, as ever more psychotherapists and counselors hang out their shingles with names such as "Happiness Heaven" or "Mood Manager." But they cannot hope to keep up with demand, they say, in a turbulent society where a typhoon of change has torn through ordinary people's lives.

"The faster society develops, the faster people's lives become, and the more stressed they get," explains Che Hongsheng, dean of Beijing Normal University's psychology faculty. "Many people feel they are losing their balance, and balance matters a lot to Chinese."

More and more of them are turning to religion for solace or visiting counselors like Tian, a forthright and reassuring woman who sold a successful company to train as a psychotherapist. Though reliable figures are hard to come by, psychologists estimate that there are some 2,000 qualified counselors working in China.

The stigma attached to all things psychological in China "is still hanging over" the profession, she says, but it is fading. At least it is fading for women, who make up nearly 80 percent of her clientele. "Men here are taught to suppress their emotions, or they lose face," Tian explains.

Chinese women have proved especially vulnerable to stress: Chinese females between the ages of 15 and 34 have the highest suicide rate in the world – one that is almost double the national average.

Among the biggest challenges, Tian's clients (paying $40 an hour for her services, which makes them a wealthy elite in China) tell her, is the new need to rely on oneself in a country where the state once provided everything.

"The old meets the new, the East meets the West, and that leaves a lot of people totally confused," says Tian. "A lot of them hold it back, but others step forward" to seek help.

Many of them, she adds, have trouble figuring themselves out, in a society where the individual self has traditionally been subordinated to the collective. "You should think for your family, your country, your group, never think for yourself," Tian explains. "As I grew up there were tons of people telling me what to do – my parents, my elder brothers, my teachers, the media. The focus was never on the individual but on the benefit for the collective interest."

That approach suited China's communist authorities just fine, and made psychotherapy's focus on individual self-realization counterrevolutionary. For years, psychology was condemned in China as a decadent bourgeois indulgence and it was only reinstated as a subject for study after Deng Xiaoping introduced his "reform and opening" policy at the end of the 1970s.

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