Beijing Begins to Pay Attention to Mental Health Care

Photograph by China Photos/Getty Images

Of the approximately 173 million people in China estimated to suffer from “a diagnosable psychiatric disorder,” only about 15 million have ever received medical treatment, according to a 2012 paper in the British medical journal Lancet. The country of 1.4 billion people has only about 20,000 psychiatrists, just 4,000 of whom are adequately trained and qualified, according to the journal.

Awareness of mental health as a public health issue is still nascent in China, and great stigmas still attach to acknowledging that oneself—or a close family member—may suffer from depression, bipolar disorder, or another condition. At the same time, the massive changes associated with China’s rapid urbanization—including millions of children separated from parents who go to work at distant factories—adds enormous psychological strain, according to the journal.

In May 2013, China’s first law to safeguard the medical privacy of people seeking health for mental treatment went into effect. The law also prohibited involuntary treatment of mental illness without the consent of a guardian. In the past, Chinese political dissidents were sometimes labeled as “mentally ill” by authorities, who used this excuse to confine them; human rights activists say this practice has not been totally abolished. Still, despite its flawed enforcement, the American Journal of Psychiatry hailed the new law as “a high-water mark for Chinese psychiatry, and potentially for global mental health.”

Currently, most mental health resources are concentrated in a handful of China’s leading cities. On Tuesday, Beijing’s public health authorities told Phoenix News that the city would expand access to mental health resources for residents. One focus will be on helping people cope with the death of parents and loved ones.

Yet the question remains of how to provide care to China’s large migrant worker population—who lack the residence permits (hukous) required to entitle them to social services. According to independent financial magazine Caixin, fully 37 percent of people residing in Beijing lack residence status and thus lack guaranteed access to any health care.

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