Shanghai Street View: Taking Counsel

Shanghai boosts mental health

Shanghai is taking a ground-breaking step forward in improving the city’s mental health, with word that education officials are crafting guidelines that will see psychological counseling centers set up in most of the city’s schools starting next year. The step may sound small and even trivial to many foreigners, since such counseling centers have been present in most western schools for decades now.

But the move is really quite revolutionary for conservative China, and Shanghai should get kudos for taking this ground-breaking step. China’s rapid move to a market economy and more open society have put huge stress on everyone, as ways of doing things often change overnight and old social safety nets from the socialist era disappear.

And yet attitudes towards psychological problems have failed to keep up with those changes. The prevailing attitude when I first came to China in the 1980s was that psychological problems were mostly imaginary, an invention of western academics. That perception remains largely intact today, especially among the older generation, even as they heap huge pressure on their children who are often unprepared for such stress.

China’s current system of handling psychological issues is quite fragmented, and few people have professional training. Many universities have informal buddy systems of xuedi and xuemei, loosely translating to “study brother” and “study sister”, which pair younger incoming students with older, more experienced peers. All students also have a series of adult advisors who can offer some advice on psychological issues, but again such advisors don’t usually have any formal training.

Then there are the more institutionalized systems, including local intermediaries in residential districts who help to mediate disputes within households and between neighbors. A newer crop of other organizations are also springing up, such as suicide prevention hotlines similar to those in the west.

Realizing this fragmented state of affairs and the need for a more professional and comprehensive solution, the city’s education officials have been studying the issue and have been drawing up guidelines and standards that should become finalized next year. After that, many of the city’s 1,500 elementary and middle schools will be allowed to set up their own counseling centers under the guidelines.

These new centers sound like a godsend for Shanghai’s schools, which have become urban pressure cookers due to the huge amounts of homework given to students. That problem is compounded at home by the huge pressure that parents heap on their only children to succeed.

This kind of counseling center was a fixture at the schools I attended growing up in the US, even though I’ll openly admit that my classmates and I didn’t take the counselors very seriously since most of us didn’t feel much pressure. We had to meet with our counselor once at the start of each year, and additional meetings could be arranged as needed throughout the year. In addition to helping with psychological issues, our counselors also helped us with more mundane matters like choosing classes and which colleges to apply to.

But much has changed in the US since I went to school in the 1970s and early ‘80s. From a student’s perspective, the biggest change is the huge array of options available during one’s school years and also after graduation. There’s also far more competition to get into the best universities. Those issues are magnified in China, where emphasis on getting into good universities is huge.

Yet despite that pressure, Chinese parents often don’t realize how much stress they put on their children. That problem is compounded by their attitude that attributes any signs of trouble to “growing pains” and fails to recognize when there may be serious problems.

One friend recently confided in me of feeling depressed, and remarked that many of her friends responded by telling her to simply find a boyfriend, as if that would fix all her problems. Another friend confided of feeling extreme pressure from his parents to pursue a banking career in which he had no interest. Talking with his parents was useless, since they couldn’t understand why he would want to pursue his preferred but more difficult artistic career path.

Not wanting to burden any of his friends, his solution was to go away for a weekend to wrestle with the problem himself. That’s not an uncommon solution in China, but it’s hardly an ideal one for people who are often feeling lonely and confused, and really needed to talk through their problems with an understanding and sympathetic third party trained to handle such issues.

We’ll have to wait and see how these new counseling centers are received, and how well the plan is executed before we can say if they’re a success. One of my big concerns is confidentiality, since many students may be reluctant to seek help if they think their counselors might tell their parents. But at least it’s a start, representing a broader acceptance of an issue that’s been largely ignored in China for most of its modern history.

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