China Power

Mental Health’s Stigma

The recent series of stabbings in China highlight shortcomings over mental health treatment.

Another week and, sadly it seems, another multiple stabbing in China. The latest incident came in southern China, where a number of knife-wielding men reportedly broke into a vocational school dormitory and started slashing at students.

In this latest case, the attack seems to have been prompted by something specific (an earlier dispute at a barbecue stall). But it comes after a string of attacks since March on educational facilities that have claimed, according to Reuters, 27 lives, while dozens more have been injured.

One of the most immediate concerns for the government has been how much media coverage to allow of the attacks, with the Propaganda Department ordering that coverage be kept off the front pages of domestic newspapers, with reports to follow the official Xinhua News Agency’s lead. The government defends the restrictions by arguing that allowing front page coverage only inspires copycat crimes (and the earlier attacks were certainly eerily similar, with everyday household objects such as kitchen knives and cleavers being used on small children).

But critics say that the government is more interested in preserving a veneer of social harmony, a point taken up by the popular Chinese blogger Han Han. According to the Carter Center’s excellent site China Elections and Governance, Han Han’s original post was taken down (he indicated under pressure to do so). However, the Center offers a useful translation of the entire original, which includes his view that:

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

‘In the Taizhou kindergarten murder case, the news media has been controlled. These children’s births were untimely, and their deaths are even more untimely. To those officials in the relevant departments, this incident comes as an unpleasant noise interrupting the festive atmosphere (of the opening of the Shanghai Expo).’

Premier Wen Jiabao admitted last week that the attacks weren’t necessarily just random incidents by mad men (the angle that has generally been pursued by the media) suggesting that there needed to be some examination of the more deep-rooted social causes behind the attacks.

This admission was a welcome step, and a sensible departure from the narrow focus on security demonstrated by other officials. But one of the biggest challenges is going to be changing attitudes, not least on the issue of mental health.

The magnitude of this challengecould have been made no clearer than it was byan extraordinary opinion piece that ran in the Global Times earlier this month titled ‘Sympathy for child-killers spoils moral judgment.’ In the piece, Li Meijin condones the restrictions on reporting, arguing that the media should be focusing on being a ‘positivesocial influence’.

And Li certainly has no truck with the idea of understanding why the clearly sick individuals who committed these crimes did so, arguing:

‘When the first attack took place in Nanping, Fujian Province in March, killing eight children and injuring five, I said that in similar cases, the criminal should be shot on the spot. This would be a strong deterrent to the crime, as these desperate criminals will not listen to reason.

‘The whole society must show a united front against such crime. If we can take a firm and clear-cut attitude toward it, emphasizing that such crimes are unforgivable, they will decrease.’

And what does this writer do when not offering his two cents worth on the benefits of a take no prisoners approach to law and order? Well, he’s apparently a criminal psychology professor at the Chinese People's Public Security University.

Mental health is a difficult subject in China, with many afraid to seek help either for themselves or a family member out of fear of stigmatization. Indeed, as reported by the China Daily, government-funded research last year indicated that just 5 percent of Chinese suffering from mental disorders had sought assistance from a mental health professional.

With ‘professional’ views like those of Mr Li, it’s not hard to understand their reluctance to do so.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.