China’s Mental Illness

The CPC media has announced the enactment of China’s first Mental Health Law which is set to begin this year. During the Cultural Revolution, mental illness was declared as a self-delusion and has since been stigmatized throughout the nation. As a result, psychiatric problems are often deemphasized when it comes to media coverage within China, which has contributed to the slow progression of much needed change within the system. Along with understaffed facilities and lack of qualified professionals, recent evidence also shows that the mental health system continues to be exploited as a tool to restrain those seen as political dissents. Because both media and mental healthcare are directly controlled by the state, it is impossible to find coverage of such atrocities in the PRC’s media, so we must turn to foreign outlets to find out more.

According to a study from The Lancet, a British medical journal, 17.5% of China’s adult population suffers from a mental illness, ranking the PRC amongst the highest in the world for mental diseases. Meanwhile, China’s hospitals are severely lacking in resources and qualified psychologists, with only 1 in 12 patients in need of psychiatric care receiving it during 2009. Rural communities, where suicide rates are especially high, receive virtually no care at all. China’s movement towards a Mental Health Law comes two years after statistics released by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention showed that over 100 million Chinese are being affected by mental illness. The new law is intended to emphasize the government’s responsibility to help citizens suffering from mental diseases. But after a number of investigations into the PRC’s mental health sector, foreign media has begun to ask: Just who is being labeled as ‘mentally ill’?

During the Cultural Revolution, Chinese citizens were institutionalized for homosexuality and political dissent. In fact, neighbors in Zhejiang province were encouraged to report on one another if they suspected ‘mental illness’. Unfortunately, those days are not over. For example, after a Buddhist nun organized a memorial in Tiananmen Square to honor victims of the 1989 massacre, she was forced to enter a mental hospital for psychiatric treatment shorty afterwards. She later took legal action against the state. Similarly, a 2010 report from the New York Times profiles an impoverished farmer who was locked in a mental institution for more than 6 years after he filed a series of complaints against the local government over a land dispute. He endured 54 electric shock treatments and was repeatedly roped to his bed and drugged. According to experts specializing in mental law, these instances are on the rise.

The PRC prides itself as a ‘harmonious society’, and when acts of violence occur because of mental instability, the State often avoids responsibility. When 6 men murdered 21 people during a series of schoolyard attacks, government authorities placed news blackouts on similar incidents. The blackouts were supposedly intended to discourage copycat killers, though it is also likely that the State did not want to invoke further public outrage, seeing as at least 3 of the 6 killers had already shown signs of being deranged or suicidal, according to news reports. Another incident occurred when a schizophrenic man, unable to seek psychiatric care, attacked two young children and slit the throat of another. Sadly, police failed to detain the man when he struck a neighbor in the head with an axe just days earlier.

If the State can see to it that ‘dissents’ are institutionalized, why can’t they offer treatment to the severely ill and potentially dangerous? It comes down to priorities. Will the new mental health law sufficiently help those in need of psychiatric care, or will it further enable officials to use the system as a loophole to assert power? As it stands with many issues within China, there is not enough public awareness to incite change. Although international awareness has placed pressure on the PRC to acknowledge concerns, such as the widely covered 2009 patient abuse scandal which China’s state-run media downplayed, China’s media will continue to mask controversies so long as it is remains under direct control of the CPC.


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