World

School Attacks in China Shed Light on Little-Discussed Mental Illness Issues

The violent incidents seem to point to a quiet crisis in China: the growing prevalence of mental health problems and a lack of care for those afflicted.

BEIJING, Jul 5 , 2010 (IPS) - When a distraught landlord wielding a kitchen cleaver stormed into a kindergarten classroom in south-east China’s Fujian province in May and killed several people, including children, it was the bloodiest of five recent attacks at schools across the country.

In the end, the Fujian landlord hacked to death seven children and two adults before returning home and killing himself on May 12.

That brought the number of casualties from a spate of school attacks in China to more than 20 students and adults dead, prompting calls for the government to improve protection for schoolchildren. Several of the attackers were reported to be suffering from mental illnesses.

The violent incidents seem to point to a quiet crisis in China: the growing prevalence of mental illnesses and a lack of care for those afflicted. And it’s a struggle the government appears to be coming to terms with.

According to estimates from senior health officials, China has at least 100 million people suffering from some form of mental illness, affecting 7 percent of the population. In 2009, this surpassed heart disease and cancer as the biggest burden on China’s health care system.

The conditions that come with these mental illnesses include depression, anxiety, drug addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Recent reports in state-run media indicate the government is beginning to recognise the problem. Premier Wen Jiabao said "deeper causes" may have prompted the recent attacks. An article in ‘China Daily’ newspaper said the government "was taking urgent steps" to expand treatment for mentally ill patients.

Vice Minister of Health Yin Li said at the recent National Conference on the Comprehensive Management of Public Security that "social transformation" has increased pressure on people and therefore the prevalence of mental illnesses, according to ‘China Daily’.

"The increase of social problems, competition, the rich-poor gap as well as other psychological obstacles means the number of people suffering from mental disorders is on the rise," Cao Rifang, the deputy secretary of the Hangzhou Association for Mental Health, told IPS. "These patients are in an unstable condition, and if there is inadequate care, these people can easily hurt others. China has no complete care system to take care of mental disorders."

Cao notes, however, that the vast majority of the estimated 100 million people who suffer from mental illnesses in China demonstrate symptoms remain functioning members of society, with no impulses toward violence.

The Communist Party of China’s current five-year plan (2007-2012) includes mental illness as a major field of research. Beijing has pledged to build six new mental health clinics in the city to treat the 150,000 people who are estimated to suffer from mental illness. In February, the government launched a nationwide mental-health awareness campaign, part of an effort linking treatment to reducing social unrest.

But providing effective treatment for mentally ill patients will be an uphill struggle in a country where the subject has long been taboo.

The practice of psychiatry was outlawed during the Cultural Revolution and Chairman Mao Zedong said all mental illnesses could be attributed to an inadequate understanding of class struggle. Many Chinese suffering from mental illnesses were removed from hospitals and sent to labour camps in the countryside due to their "counter-revolutionary" behaviour.

Despite the recent school attacks, some officials have insisted the horrific episodes were isolated incidents and have called instead for increased security.

According to a report last year in London’s ‘Telegraph’ newspaper, there are only 4,000 qualified psychiatrists and another 15,000 doctors working in psychiatric hospitals to serve China’s 1.3 billion people.

Often, mental illness has been used as an excuse to detain people who cause trouble for local governments.

Zhou Rongyan, an office director for the Agricultural Committee in Chongqing, was sentenced to prison for 10 years in 1998 for fighting for petitioners’ rights. A psychiatrist diagnosed her with a mental disorder, though the Chongqing Procuratorate later issued as statement to say she did not.

Upon her release, Zhou started investigating mental illness in China and found that at least 1,000 had been detained illegally based on false psychiatric diagnoses, according to a post she placed on ‘Tianya’, a popular Internet forum.

Cao said that prejudices against mentally ill continue to exist and that they may find it difficult to find jobs or enroll in schools. But attitudes are improving, and the government is taking important steps toward providing better care for mental health problems, he said.

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