A medical worker informs residents on the prevention and control of mental health disorders in Xingtai, Hebei Province, on October 10, 2020 (XINHUA)
A couple of months ago, Wu Miao found herself trapped in a bout of depression whilst on maternity leave. On the one hand, she and her husband were strapped for cash as raising a baby turned out to cost a lot more than they had initially expected, and she was earning much less during the leave. On the other hand, her mother-in-law was temporarily staying with them to help take care of the baby, but this resulted in the occasional bickering over household trivialities.
The sleep deprivation that comes with nursing a newborn only added to Wu's moody blues. She then felt the urge to buy pretty, but unnecessary things like fancy clothes and jewelry to bring herself a sense of joy, but doing so only worsened the family's financial situation—as well as her anxiety.
Wu's friend worried that she might be suffering from postpartum depression and suggested that she see a therapist. "But I didn't think this was necessary. I could get better on my own," the 31-year-old told Beijing Review. "Every family has their skeletons in the closet, and everyone has their gloomy days."
Today, the average indexes measuring Chinese people's capability in dealing with emotions, and their self-knowledge, interpersonal communication as well as adaptability to change are lower than those of 2008, according to a mental health development report released by the Institute of Psychology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and China Social Sciences Press in March. The blue book, entitled Report on National Mental Health Development in China (2019-20), was based on over 60,000 survey samples collected from different provinces across the country.
It seems that mental health problems are becoming more prominent, with healthy lifestyles being compromised, and the pressure from all aspects of life on the rise, says Chen Zhiyan, a professor at the Institute of Psychology of the CAS and deputy editor in chief of the blue book. Nevertheless, Chen added that people's awareness of mental health problems should be improved so that they will take the problems more seriously.
"Nowadays, an increasing number of people know what depression actually is, while years ago the disorder might be simply regarded as neurasthenia rather than a psychological problem," Chen told Southern Weekend.
She went on to explain that one of the main reasons for someone to feel dejected is sleep disturbance, resulting usually from an overall lack of sleep. With the pressures of daily life, such emotions may develop into a full-blown depressive disorder.
"I'm a habitual late sleeper. I'm reluctant to go to sleep because I feel the time before bed is the only me-time that I can enjoy after a whole day of working and taking care of my family. If I go to sleep early, then another long and hard day of struggles will arrive in a blink of the eye," Wu, who has by now completed her maternity leave and resumed working, said.
This lack of sleep is also bothering today's teenagers. The report shows that young students today are sleeping far less than a decade ago. Only 46.4 percent of Chinese adolescents slept for eight hours or more on school nights in 2020, down 1 percent from 2019. Meanwhile, the average sleep time for Chinese teenagers in 2020 was about 7.8 hours, 0.3 hour less than in 2019. In 2020, primary and middle school students got 40 minutes less sleep than a decade ago, while high school students got 10 to 20 minutes less.
Xu Ruobing, a sixth-grader in Beijing, said that she is especially sleepy during the weekends as she needs to attend drawing classes and other special training classes during the day and interact with her schoolmates and friends throughout the evening, sometimes via online games, before going to bed.
Chen said COVID-19 may have added to the worsening sleeping problem, as students had to use electronic devices to attend online courses, among other things. It is hard to control the time they spend on these devices and some students have a tendency to stay up very late on their phone.
A lack of sleep for elementary and middle school students may set off a chain reaction, in turn affecting their academic and physical health, according to Cheng Pingyuan, a professor at the School of Social Development of Nanjing Normal University. He believes that this may even lead to psychological depression and suicidal thoughts.
The blue book also shows that the average level of anxiety among people aged 18 to 34 is higher than that of other age groups in adulthood. The result echoes a survey report on the prevalence of mental disorders among Chinese adults conducted by Huang Yueqin, a professor of the No. 6 Hospital of Peking University, which showed that among all age groups, people aged 18 to 34 have the highest incidence of alcohol, insomnia or pain medication disorders. The report was published in the international journal The Lancet Psychiatry in 2019.
Chen said the anxiety partly stems from an overload of information. In addition, more life choices and the urge to compare themselves with other people may lead to a sense of self-loss and anxiety.
The mental health status of the urban population is better than that of the rural population; mental health problems are more prominent in low-income, less educated, and unemployed people, according to the report.
The report also shows that people's mental health awareness has increased significantly, and the convenience of mental health services has also greatly improved, according to the report. The survey shows that compared with the previous year, more people feel that their own mental health and that of those around them has become better, and more people are feeling optimistic about the future.
Mental health work is receiving more attention from the government, said Fu Xiaolan, head of the Institute of Psychology of the CAS, adding that mental health work is now better organized and professionalized than ever before.
According to a policy document jointly issued by the National Health Commission and eight other departments, China plans to set up mental health outpatient services in a number of general hospitals in pilot areas by the end of 2021. Moreover, in-school psychological counseling will be provided to all primary and middle schools in pilot areas. It also called for in-time psychological counseling and intervention for COVID-19 patients and their relatives, people in quarantine, as well as medical staff.
In 2019, an action plan was rolled out offering suggestions on how individuals and families and all sectors of society can work together to improve the people's overall mental health, such as by using more scientific methods to ease daily pressure, making sure people get enough sleep, giving full play to the role of mental healthcare institutions, and enhancing mental health education among new employees and students.
Companies, too, have given prominence to the mental health of their employees by inviting specialists to give lectures, providing regular psychological counseling and organizing interactive events.
In 2020, JD Health, a large online healthcare platform in China, launched an online free clinic through a dedicated app in cooperation with a number of major hospitals, offering online inquiry and psychological counseling services. Lu Lin, Director of the No. 6 Hospital of Peking University, said convenience and confidentiality are the main advantages of such online platforms. Furthermore, as there are no digital boundaries, patients are able to consult specialists from all over the country.
Despite the promising progress, the supply of mental health services is yet to fully meet the demands of the public, forewarned the report, stating that the geographical discrepancy in this regard is obvious.
The blue book calls for the improved regularization of mental health services and advises more attention be paid to the mental health status of the undereducated population and those residing in underdeveloped areas.
(Print Edition Title: A New Frame of Mind)
Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon
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