Growing pains hit mental health in China

When an ax-wielding man attacked people on the street in Henan Province on Wednesday, the terse media reports created headlines and public panic. Wang Hongbin, 30, killed six people, including two children, and is said to be mentally ill.

Is this yet another sign of a worsening mental illness in China?

We recall last year’s alarming stories of five major attacks in Chinese schools, leaving 17 people, including 15 pupils, dead.

In March, a local resident in Fujian stabbed students, killing eight and injuring five. The suspected attacker, a former community doctor, was suffering from mental illness, the Xinhua report said.
In May, Wu Huanming, 48, stabbed students in a private kindergarten in Shanxi province, killing nine people, including seven pupils. According to Xinhua, local police said Wu slumped into depression after suffering several illnesses.

Following those grisly attacks, Premier Wen Jiabao pledged that government authorities will beef up security in schools and will address the social issues related to the attacks.

These incidents have triggered heated discussions in the Chinese media whether mental illness should be considered mitigating factors in criminal trials.

They have also put the spotlight on the state of mental health in China.

Are things are getting worse?

Dr. Michael Phillips, director of Suicide Research and Prevention Center at Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine, does not think so.

“I expect the recent spate of violence by persons with mental illness is more a reflection of increased press interest than the result of greater frequency of such events,” he tells me. “Given the size of the country, these events are going to happen.”

Phillips has resided and worked in China for more than 20 years. He has co-authored research papers on mental health issues in China, including one on the alarmingly high suicide rate in China.

The Canadian psychiatrist says “there is no clear evidence that the prevalence of mental disorders has changed dramatically in the last decade or so” — with the exception of alcohol abuse.

“It’s impossible to characterize the mental health of a nation, particularly on the size and diversity of China. My large study with 60,000+ subjects in four provinces found rates of mental illnesses similar to that reported in Europe and North America,” he said.

Shortage of counselors

Still, the China numbers are staggering.

By Jaime FlorCruz

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