Navigating the stresses that come with living in China – the traffic chaos, the nonchalance in the face of near-death experiences, the murderous troposphere, and the occasional mass food scare – is no easy feat. But the strains that we so often embrace can also be compounded by anxieties that arise from being far away from home, having to navigate one of the world’s hardest languages, learning the ropes of a significantly different culture, and trying to find suitable treatment in a country with a growing but still stigma-bound understanding of mental health.
Mental health awareness in China has grown considerably in the past decade but as you would expect, resources remain largely local-focused, which along with denial, apathy, and not knowing when to seek professional help, can all work together to impede our efforts to get better. Dr. Chou Yuwen, a trained psychologist at Beijing United Family Hospital, states that behaviors are considered detrimental and in need of treatment when they “start to affect [a person’s]daily functioning such as work, study, and home life for a period of time.” Unfortunately for many, the warning signs may not be so obvious.
Qin Xiaojie, founder of NGO CandleX, which specializes in providing psychological support for sufferers of anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder (with which she herself is diagnosed), states that the first step to getting help is acceptance: “you have to find a way to know that it’s okay to struggle and feel bad – it’s part of being human. The second point is to understand that there are options out there. Usually, if someone is suffering from depression, they have a tunnel effect where there appear to be no other options and the tunnel seems endless.”
To that end, Qin Xiaojie suggests that should you find yourself in a bind, “try to be open and explore, find support, and don’t carry [the burden]all by yourself – talk to your friends, talk to your parents, but also be aware that they might not react in the way that you expect them to, and if that’s the case, what do you do then to deal with that possibility.” She also suggests making a “crisis plan” for if your mental health deteriorates, an effective way to engage friends in reducing your own exposure to personal risk as well as aid recovery from an episode that may otherwise be impeded by trauma, circumstance, or anxiety. In this regard, a certain level of self-awareness is key to putting you on the right track to recovery given that it may require a drastic adjustment of your lifestyle or habits; perhaps you’re in a bad relationship or a job that’s not suitable for you, maybe you drink too much or don’t put time aside to cultivate ways to unwind.
Qiao Miao, a student counselor at Peking University, describes how many of the students that he sees lack hobbies, a byproduct of their competitive and all-encompassing university education. Just as someone who works all the time, or not at all, may not have an activity to take their mind off of their problems, Qiao often simply prescribes “finding something that you can fall in love with, something that when you’re doing it you can get into the flow, can focus on it alone, and are able to forget the passage of time.”
One factor that all three interviewees agree on is that the best way to combat mental health issues from developing in the first place is to be compassionate to yourself. Such self-maintenance can take many forms but you should start by tending to your body and mind, particularly by eating well, sleeping well, and getting regular physical exercise. Additionally, take a moment to be mindful of how you feel and assess the underlying causes. Finally, build habits that allow for downtime, perhaps coupling them with practical goals that will help you to manage stress more effectively.
As China’s middle class becomes increasingly self-sufficient amid an uncertain future, the acknowledged importance of mental health upkeep continues to grow, psychologists playing the role of priest to China’s atheist, capital-driven masses. As a foreigner in China, the best thing you can remember is that should problems arise, home is never too far away and that there is always help available here – you just have to ask for it.
Mental health resources
Mental health support group every second and fourth Thursday of the month, 7.30-9pm (donation-based). www.candlex.cn
Beijing United Hospital
9-11 West Jiangtai Road, Chaoyang District. Psychological Health Center: 5927 7067; 24-hour ER hotline: 5927 7120. www.beijing.ufh.com.cn
Accepts China-wide calls for year-round free, confidential, and anonymous emotional support, 10am-10pm. 021 6279 8990; www.lifeline-shanghai.com
More stories by this author here.
Image courtesy of Thomas Sauvin/Beijing Silvermine