BEIJING – Decades of fast economic growth and social development have propelled China to the level of Western nations in many regards but it has also brought with it new mental health issues that in the last 30 years have multiplied, an expert in the field said on Thursday.
“China’s mental health situation today is similar to what the United States had in the 1960s,” said Professor Yueqin Huang, director of social psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Institute of Mental Health Peking University.
Yueqin is the co-author of the first nationwide study into the prevalence of mental health illnesses in China, the results of which were published in the prestigious British research journal The Lancet published in early March.
After two years of fieldwork, researchers concluded that around 16.6 percent of adults in China, roughly 230 million people, had experienced some sort of mental health issue in their lives, a considerable uptick compared to previous surveys.
While accounts of severe mental illness remained steady over the last 30 years, affecting on average between 0.5 and 1 percent of the population, anxiety disorders and depression have been at the crux of the rise in prevalence of health issues.
“Changing the lifestyle of the Chinese has had emotional impacts,” Prof. Yueqin said. “Nowadays they are under more pressure, many have to work at night and this affects their mood.”
“Family structures have also been greatly affected. Before, up to four generations would live in the same home and there was a greater unity between family members and friends, but nowadays families are much smaller and lots of people live alone,” she added.
The study, which was based on the survey of 32,552 people, found depressive disorders were the most prevalent in Chinese society, affecting 6.9 percent of the population, while 6.1 percent of respondents said they had suffered periods of anxiety.
A shift away from rural to urban living – around 58.52 percent of China’s population now lives in its ever-sprawling cities – has contributed to the phenomenon, Yueqin said.
Moreover, an ageing population means that diseases such as dementia, from which around 5.2 percent of Chinese suffer, were also on the rise.
In that regard, the study underscores that a boom in mental health issues linked to modernization and the proliferation of technology was not limited to China, but was part of a wider, global pattern.
“Right now, China is halfway between developed and developing countries in terms of mental health,” Yueqin said.
The expert acknowledged that there were limited resources dedicated to dealing with mental health in China compared to other nations.
China has an average of 1.7 psychiatrists per 100,000, for example, compared to Hong Kong’s five in every 100,000, Taiwan’s seven and the United States’ 12.
In that regard, another study published by the Chinese Academy of Science found that 74 percent of respondents said they had no access to psychological or psychiatric help.
Yueqin and the other co-authors of the study have urged the Chinese government to pay more attention to mental health issues.
The government could help eliminate the taboo and discrimination that comes part and parcel with mental health issues in China.
“When I visited the US in the 90s, I was surprised at how naturally people spoke about their mental health issues, something that is not so common in Asian countries,” Yueqin said, although she showed optimism that changes were afoot in China, too.
“Not long ago, someone I know called me to ask to help them with mental health issues. The Chinese are now a little more conscious and know they can be cured of an illness, all that remains is to fight the discrimination and get rid of the shame that accompanies it,” she continued.
The most populated nation on Earth with roughly 1.386 billion people, China is poised to take over from the US as the world’s largest economy by 2020, according to a recent report from the Standard Chartered Bank.