In China only a tiny amount of funding goes into mental health, even though it is estimated that roughly 1.5% of the population suffer from serious mental illnesses (that’s nearly 15 million people). In the past few years there have been a growing number of reports of violence caused by underlying mental problems, which included a spate of attacks on kindergartens last year. China also has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, exact numbers are very hard to come by. One fact that is not disputed though is that China is the only country in the world where more women commit suicide than men. Perhaps the most shocking statistic is that there are only an estimated 4,000 academically trained psychiatrists practicing in the entire country. (facts from here and here)
The problems facing the country as a whole are clear, but you read this blog to understand china at a personal level. So today I will be sharing a story that is a bit difficult for me to tell.
One night I received a phone call from a female student who was incredibly distraught. Both myself, and my teaching partner spent close to an hour talking with her on the phone that night in an effort to calm her down. She didn’t want to live anymore, but could not tell us why. All we knew at this time was that it had something to do with her breaking up with her boyfriend.
These break ups are much more serious in China than what I have witnessed in the States. Here boys are encouraged to date around a little, but if a girl has had more than 2 or 3 boyfriends it can be considered fairly scandalous. At my previous school a girl had thrown herself into the river because she couldn’t handle Valentine’s day after her boyfriend left her.
We tried to get her to talk with one of her female teachers, or the school “nurse”. Those efforts were unsuccessful, so for the next month we took turns answering her phone calls and listening to her sob.
Finally though she decided that she was ready to tell us what had happened. One night she had been out with her boyfriend and his friend, and they were all drinking (they were only 17). Her boyfriend was called home, and she was left there with his friend. That night he raped her. If that wasn’t awful enough, he told her that if she didn’t continue to have sex with him, he would tell her boyfriend that she had seduced him.
In China (and other Asian cultures) women are often so socially powerless that in situations like this it feels impossible for them to escape. He had targeted her weakness, and she knew if her boyfriend found out, her parents would too, and they would no longer love her (this is partially just the emotions of a 17 year-old girl, not everything is China’s fault).
After being blackmailed for sex by this boy three or four more times, she realized that she was pregnant. As a young unmarried woman, her only choice as she saw it was to have an abortion. She knew that this was a common procedure, and one that she shouldn’t feel bad about, since that was what the advertisements on the bus told her (they do actually advertise abortions on the bus).
She went to the cheapest clinic she could find. She told me about a month after it had happened that she knew that she was going to be a mother, but that they “cut out the baby”. There had been complications from the procedure as well, and she was told that she would be infertile.
In China this amounted to an unforgivable sin for a daughter to commit. Not only had she had sex with a man before marriage, but she wouldn’t even be able to give her future husband a son. This was a fact that was all too clear to her, and it made her want to give up.
Luckily, she was strong enough to reach out for help, and receive support from her two foreign teachers and her closest friends. Thousands of others have no net to catch them in moments like these.
The pressure on students here is unimaginable for those of us who grew up in Western countries. There is a test to get into a good high school, at the end of high school there is a test that entirely determines which college you will get into. A poor result on the test you take in middle school affects whether you will spend the rest of your life in a factory, or have a chance to escape China’s working class.
After they finish college there is pressure to get married, buy an apartment and a car, have a son, support your parents in their retirement… Unless China starts training mental health care professionals now, the problems are only going to get worse.