Is Mental Health in China Getting Worse?A story by Jaime FlorCruz over at CNN today caught my eye about mental health problems in China. The journalist asks a simple question, “Are mental health problems in China getting worse?”

Like most simple questions asking about an entire nation’s health or mental health, the answer is more complicated. Luckily, FlorCruz acknowledges as much and provides for an interesting and balanced look at the issue.

Is Chinese mental health growing worse? Let’s find out.

The article doesn’t start off well, highlighting the link between a spate of violent attacks in China by allegedly mentally ill people. The attacks, in separate incidents in geographically distant areas, have resulted in the deaths and injuries of dozens of people.

Media reports often just note an attacker was said to be “suffering from mental illness,” with little detail or background information. Many Chinese watching such reports may be left with the impression that mental illness in China is getting worse, with many such people turning to violence.

But after beginning with this gruesome premise, the reporter starts getting some expert opinion and data to see if there’s anything to the connection. Dr. Michael Phillips, director of Suicide Research and Prevention Center at Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine, said:

“I expect the recent spate of violence by persons with mental illness is more a reflection of increased press interest than the result of greater frequency of such events,” he tells me. “Given the size of the country, these events are going to happen.” […]

[He goes on to say,] “there is no clear evidence that the prevalence of mental disorders has changed dramatically in the last decade or so” — with the exception of alcohol abuse.

“It’s impossible to characterize the mental health of a nation, particularly on the size and diversity of China. My large study with 60,000+ subjects in four provinces found rates of mental illnesses similar to that reported in Europe and North America,” he said.

Apparently, there aren’t many mental health professionals in China, much less enough to help the 19 million psychiatric patients in the country. According to the article, there are only just over 88,000 mental health professionals in the entire country. For comparison sake, there are over 170,000 psychologists, 113,000 mental health counselors, 86,000 substance abuse counselors, 34,000 psychiatrists and 27,000 marriage and family therapists in the U.S. for a population of approximately 15 – 18 million who have a mental health concern.

So China has roughly 1/5th the number of professionals as the U.S. does to treat similar numbers of people. But it’s much worse than that… Because mental illness remains highly stigmatized and there remains a lot of ignorance and prejudice about it in China, though, the numbers of people who don’t seek diagnosis or treatment are probably much larger.

If we say, conservatively, 5 percent of a country’s population has a mental disorder or substance abuse problem (which is what it is in many industrialized nations), that would suggest 66.5 million Chinese have mental health concerns — 3 times the official number quoted in the CNN article.

Despite the occasional doom and gloom mentioned by some in the article, it looks like the Chinese government is taking the issue seriously:

Others credit the government for putting new priority on mental health. Along with diabetes and hypertension, Dr. Phillips notes, mental illness is now one of the main targets of a health reform program initiated in 2009. […]

The government has allocated money, but it has yet to build a network of community-based mental health providers. “Given that currently only about 8% of persons with mental illnesses ever seek help, one main goal of prevention efforts is to increase care-seeking; that is, changing attitudes about mental illnesses, so sufferers and their family members are willing to seek help.”

I’m glad to see this kind of journalism done by CNN. A lot of times, we tend to focus on the negative in the media by professionals and journals who should be at least a little bit ashamed of what they’re publishing. While not perfect, it’s nice to find a largely positive piece that helps the average reader understand what’s going on in China and put it into some perspective.

Read the full article: Growing pains hit mental health in China