Depression in China: Cries for Help Go Unanswered

The bottom of Chen Aiming’s life fell out standing on a Fuzhou rooftop last July 24. Recalling his 28 years of misery, there was little he could think of other than how unfairly life had treated him. He was born with a lisp in a poor rural family, ostracized by his peers as a child and dumped by his girlfriend.

As he contemplated throwing himself off, a stranger hundreds of miles away called him to persuade him to get off the rooftop. Liu Hong, the founder of China’s largest non-governmental organization focused on depression and anxiety, had saved Chen from the edge of death.

Similar cases take place in China almost every day. However, the government has done far too little for those suffering from depression. Lack of knowledge about the condition, inadequate family support as well as a scarcity of medical and mental treatment resources are all barriers they need to cross.

According to the World Health Organization, depression will be the second leading cause of world disability by 2020. In 2014, there were roughly 23,000 psychiatrists in China, 1.7 for every 100,000 people, much lower than 11 or 12 for every 100,000 in Russia and the US respectively. The low psychiatrist-to-patient ratio in China means few patients get the resources they need, especially in remote, rural corners of the country.

But NGOs like Liu's are now filling in the gap in this domain. These organizations, often staffed by people who have encountered depression themselves or by family members, are startling to help. Liu’s group, called Tulip Sunshine, is credited with influencing more than 60,000 people, helping 70 to recover and directly saving six lives.

Although they are only a tiny part when compared with China’s estimated 90 million clinical depressives, these NGOs have now become an emerging force to help Chinese people out from a disease that is stigmatized among many families.

One lucky dog in tons of tragedies

Chen’s story began in 2016 when he joined several social groups on QQ and Wechat, two popular social platforms in China, suspecting he was depressed. Forced to hand most of his salary to his mother with only RMB200 (US$29.40) as pocket money to pay his phone bill, searching information online was all he could afford. He was working three jobs every day, beginning at 7 a.m. and ending at 11:30 p.m. For thousands of lower educated Chinese people like him, it is now much easier to break the economic shackles than the mental illness shackles.

“While the economy is improving a lot and society is changing dramatically, the mental state of the Chinese people has not progressed that much,” said Ma Yongchun, deputy chief physician in Tongde Hospital of Zhejiang Province. “People are faced with more conflicts. However, not everyone can adapt to the new environment very well.”

With no weekends, no holidays and no entertainment, Chen was isolated by his heavy daily routine work. Breaking up with his girlfriend was the last straw. As he was about to jump off the building, he posted his will onto the social groups rather than to tell his parents goodbye to the world.

It’s a lucky coincidence that Liu Hong saw the message and called to talk Chen down. But stopping the depressed youth from killing himself is not the end of the story. Liu called Chen’s family to persuade them to give him money to see doctor, only to have the suspicious family treat her as a member of a marketing organization that wanted to cheat Chen out of money. Eventually she loaned money to Chen himself, and he went to a hospital in Fuzhou for treatment.

“If we want really get rid of depression, we have to rely on ourselves. Others can push you forward a little bit. But they can’t help much.” Chen said.

China’s Largest Anti-depression NGO

This wasn’t the first time Liu Hong saved depression patients about to kill themselves. She wants to build Tulip Sunshine as a platform to empower depression sufferers and draw strength from their family.

Liu came up with the idea when her daughter was diagnosed with clinical depression in 2014. She didn’t know what she could apart from consulting doctors from different hospitals. She had been tormented with remorse, pain and confusion. She didn’t want people to fall into her track. So when she failed to find a platform where depression patients and their family could share their experiences and support each other, she decided to set up one herself.

“The members (depression sufferers) don’t know each other but they hug and cry together,” Liu said. “In some offline activities, members can find their companion. They find their soul mates, a group in which people can understand each other and pour out their hearts. They feel hopeful.”

Tulip Sunshine offered depression patients opportunities to express themselves through Wechat and online radio channels. But Liu doesn’t want Tulip Sunshine to be another online chat room. She is ambitious. She wants to help people without knowledge of depression be equipped with more information; she wants to help the depressed find the right way to treat it. And she wants to help those who recovered go back to society and find a job.

These are not random thoughts. She is putting them into practice. cooperated with Ma to build a database to monitor depression patients’ mental state so that professionals can intervene as soon as possible once there is an emergency.

At present, Tulip Sunshine has 20 branches in different cities in China with around one hundred volunteers – most of whom were either victims of depression themselves are were relatives of depression patients. Liu wants to expand the branches to 50 cities this year.

“My real aim is that every city will have a branch” Liu Hong said, “It’s a lamp that shed slight on depression patients in darkness. Finding out the organization and getting together with peers is the beginning of recovery.”

It doesn’t always work. In 2004, Yu Jinxiang, the first anti-depression NGO in China, was founded by Chen Wei, a severe depression patient in Shanghai. At that time, there were few sources available for patients. It would be a low cost but effective way if the patients themselves could help each other. But as with similar NGOs then, it went nowhere because of the founder’s relapse into depression.

“Anti-depression organizations are not different from other vulnerable groups like LGBT. It’s all about a small group of people that need to be understood.” a volunteer from Yu Jinxiang said.

Every little bit helps

Not as lucky as Chen, Du Huasong cured himself of severe depression by reading psychology books and even obtaining a counseling certificate. With a good command of relative knowledge and familiarity with being trapped in the same situation, Du thinks that he has the advantage of understanding depression patients’ pain and sorrow. Unable to undertake the workload of a full-time job, Du is now freelancing. He has taken an active part in live online and held dozens of sharing lectures, through which he can affect more people by setting a shining example for depression sufferers. In the future, he plans to open his own psychological counselling office.

“The most terrifying thing about depression is not that it can kill people but when one can realize to have got depression, his or her life has already been ruined,” Du said. “At that time, one can no longer work and live as a normal person.”

The death of his cat in front of him triggered Du Huasong’s depression. He still feels hurt when he recalls that his parents blamed him for giving the family “no peace.”

Du’s parents are not rare cases. People can easily misunderstand depression when they get lost in the sea of information search engines show, most of which are either arcane theories from experts and scholars or emotional and provocative stories from depression patients. Many people in China still treat mental illnesses like depression as they do drugs, both of which, to their understanding, can simply be conquered by strong personal will. These misunderstandings can cause unintentional harm to depression patients.

Anti-depression medicine stopped Du from killing himself. But side effects such as memory loss and drowsiness were a heavy burden for him. His spiritual world became empty. And there were no mood swings, which is not how normal people live their lives---they experience happiness and sorrows.

Du said, “Depression has taken over my happiness while anti-depression medicine has stolen my pain. I want them both back in my life.”

These NGOs and ex-depression patients like Du have different opinions about recovery with doctors.

“I believe that community rehabilitation is the ultimate goal and is real recovery. What we want is not clinical rehabilitation. We want people to get rid of medicine and have a healthy lifestyle. We are trying now.” Liu Hong said when talking about plans.

Depression cannot be healed just by medicine. Depression patients should be listened, understood and supported. Mental care and medicine both play important roles in the lengthy process of depression treatment.

“The illnesses that humans can totally cure are limited. Most of the diseases are chronic, which means people have to learn how to live with a disease, even tumors.” Ma said.

Jane Zhang is a graduate student at the Hong Kong University Journalism and Media Studies Center. This was written as part of a publishing partnership with Asia Sentinel