According to a 2009 article in the British medical journal The Lancet, as many as 17.5 percent of China's adult population may suffer from some kind of mental illness. Yet mental health remains a vexing, and in some cases taboo, topic in China. The trauma and reversals of recent decades, from the Cultural Revolution to the current all-consuming drive for wealth, from shifting family structures to the migration of millions of people each year from villages to cities to find work, all have put invisible strains on the people living through these vast changes. Some recent headlines from the past year indicate that untreated mental illness may be becoming a more acute problem in China: a series of grisly attacks by middle-age men on school children, some of them deadly, caused a great public panic. The suicides of several young workers at a factory in southern China assembling iPhones likewise raised questions about where migrants (most workers are living far from home) can turn to for emotional support in difficult times.
Meanwhile, even as many people who need medical attention are unable to receive help -- either because it is too costly or because of the great social stigma attached -- there are others who are healthy but are labeled "mentally ill" by authorities seeking a reason to detain them in mental-health hospitals, as the New York Times recently documented. One man mentioned in the article, for instance, is 54-year-old Xu Lindong, who was forced to spend six and a half years in mental hospitals and subjected to 54 electric-shock treatments following a land dispute. (A recent New Yorker article explored the interest -- and confusion -- among some in China regarding the ideas of Sigmund Freud.) This is the tragic irony of mental health in China today: Many whose lives could be improved will never receive medical attention, and many who don't need it are held in confinement in the name of medicine.
In this context, I would like to offer my own personal story. I was trained in medicine in the 1980s and subsequently worked for a government health institute and then for a private NGO dedicated to AIDS awareness, which brought me into contact with marginalized populations and stigmatized people in China, including those wrongly labeled as mentally ill. I have seen people sent to mental hospitals for being gay, for domestic disputes, and for political dissent.
I was born in 1963 and grew up in a small town in Anhui province. The first person I remember being described as mentally ill was my father. He was a police officer in the 1950s; he found his work very hard to do, and by the time he left his job in the late 1950s, he hated politics. During the Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966 and lasted for 10 years, he spent time in a labor camp. There were two words people used during my childhood to describe people with a mental illness: One was fengzi, which means a dangerous person without restraint or a conscience. The other was naozi shou ciji, which means someone with a mind broken by pain or stress. That was what they said of my father. He was not ever formally diagnosed because there was very little understanding of mental health at that time in China; under Mao Zedong, it was seen as a sign of weakness. I think my father's problem was not mental illness, but instead that he had an independent mind. He read a lot and thought differently about the world. In the 1970s, people often used the label of mental illness for people like that.