COVID-19 Sparks a New Conversation on Mental Healthcare in China
The People’s Republic of China has a long history of mental healthcare, with the first National Mental Health Meeting in 1958. Along with this history of psychiatric care facilities and mental health resources, there comes a long history of stigma around mental health in China. Even more so since the COVID-19 pandemic began, mental health in China is at the forefront of the country’s mind.

History of Mental Health in China: Services & Stigma

Between 2001 and 2005, the prevalence of mental illness among the Chinese population was 17.5%. While the prevalence alone is striking, the lack of individuals seeking treatment provides a more accurate picture of mental health stigma in China. Of individuals with a diagnosis of a mental disorder, 91.8% never seek professional help. Besides stigma, there is the issue of access. Mental health most heavily affects the most disadvantaged in regard to socioeconomic status. China has a highly regulated and centralized healthcare system, but mental health services make up only 2.35% of the total health budget.

COVID-19’s Impact on Mental Health in China

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China, and the subsequent lockdown that began on January 23, 2020, China’s population has experienced the highest levels of psychological distress in decades. A nationwide survey measured the current mental health strain on the people of China and found that 35% of people are experiencing psychological distress.

Women, the elderly, migrant workers and those living in the regions where the pandemic is most severe show the highest rates of physiological distress and mental disorders. While these statistics may seem grim, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a push toward destigmatization of mental health in China and a new conversation around seeking help.

Psychologists have observed that because people are hyperaware of health amid the pandemic, particularly their mental health, there will be a long-term shift in care beginning with the destigmatization of seeking treatment for mental illness and distress.

Positive Examples of New Mental Health Resources

All levels of government and non-governmental organizations have been taking steps to improve mental healthcare in China, given how much of the population reports experiencing mild to severe psychological distress. Local governments have set up mental health support and suicide hotlines. Currently, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration National Helpline is available 24 hours a day to provide free and confidential information on mental health services and treatment. Mobile apps have emerged with a focus on mental wellbeing to help those experiencing negative mental health symptoms. Since the Ministry of Education has warned of “post-epidemic syndrome,” schools and universities have implemented screening and treatment for depression and anxiety among students.

A Path Forward

China has a population of 1.4 billion people, yet as of 2017, only nine mental health professionals existed for every 100,000 residents. This statistic is a direct result of the long-standing stigma surrounding mental health in China. Amid the negatives of the collective trauma and subsequent physiological distress resulting from the novel coronavirus, the country has successfully opened a dialogue around mental health reform in China, and evidence has determined that this is only the beginning of a hopeful path forward.

– Tatiana Nelson
Photo: Flickr