Chinese mental care remains nonexistent

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The New York Times recently spotlighted China’s system for providing services for people with mental disabilities, including the lack of available medical treatment and cultural attitudes stagnating the expansion of widespread mental health treatment.

During his authoritarian reign, Mao Zedong banned all forms of psychiatric care, characterizing mental health as a “bourgeoisie self-delusion.” The country now has about 15,000 psychiatrics, many with no higher education, much less in mental health. This ratio of one psychiatrist per every 83,000 people is one-twelfth of that in the United States, according to a 2009 study by The Lancet, a British medical journal.

Of the country’s estimated 173 million people with mental illnesses, only one in 12 ever receive proper treatment.

“The government has to invest more so that we can take care of all the patients who need treatment, regardless of whether or not the family can pay for it,” said Dr. Chen, a psychiatrist quoted in the first article in the N.Y. Times’ two-part series.

Cultural attitudes regarding mental illness still resonate from Mao’s reign, with many Chinese viewing mental illnesses as a mark of shame and people with mental illnesses as unwilling to working hard. Psychiatry is held in low regard by the country’s medical establishment and low salaries drive people away from the profession.

A recent Health Ministry survey showed that mental disorders increased by 50 percent between 2003 to 2008. Many of these disorders are stress-related conditions, such as depression and anxiety, that likely are a byproduct of the country’s rapidly evolving economy.

“Chinese society is just changing too fast for people to adjust to it,” said Dr. Ma, who participated in the survey.

China has no national mental health law and of the country’s 283 major cities, only six contain a mental health ordinance.

The second article in the series describes a system of mental institutions regularly used not for providing care, but as facilities for detaining political dissidents such as members of the Falun Gong, as reported by Human Rights Watch.

The article further describes the system as containing “a gaping lack of legal protections against psychiatric abuse, shaky standards of medical ethics and poorly trained psychiatrists and hospital administrators who sometimes feel obligated to accept anyone – sane or not – who is escorted by a government official.”