China: Fighting depression

By Cheng Xiaorong

She was drowning in her fears, but nobody saw her struggles.

“I lay flat on the cold floor in my dorm until it was dawn, stiffly and gravely. Pain overwhelmed me, and I could hardly lift a finger,” Xie Weihang described her seizure.

Xie, 19, a college student at South China Agricultural University, has been diagnosed with depression since 2014.

Depression is a severe psychiatrical disease, accompanied by symptoms that impact the ways people feel, think and behave. People with depression may be trapped into a chronic and depressed mood, sleeplessness, fatigue, lack of appetite, or mysterious cramps.

Xie suffered from sleeplessness for months. “No matter how hard I try, I could not fall asleep. I visited the clinic several times and took various sleeping pills, but they didn’t work,” she said. “After that, I decided to see a psychiatrist.”

Like being trapped in a thunderstorm, where it was too dark to see anybody around, she didn’t know when it was going to hit.

Xie is not alone.

According to World Health Organization Office Fact Sheet of Depression, approximately 54 million of people suffer from depression in China, making up 4.2 percent of the population. However, on average, less than two patients out of every 10 people get proper treatment.

Xie described how her depression often came on suddenly. “Sometimes when I was eating out with friends, tears burst out all of a sudden. Once it happened, I couldn’t do anything to it, like being attacked by a destructive evil,” she said.

Xie explained it was not exactly feeling sad either. It was feeling nothing but emptiness.

Xie once took therapy in the Overseas Hospital for several months. The clinic was dim and crowded, where people have to walk through a long, dark corridor to get there.

In the waiting room, people eyed each other and kept at a distance.

“Once I sat outside the waiting room, tears couldn’t help running out. I couldn’t stop it. It was a place that kept reminding me that I was an imprisoned wreck and different from the ‘regular people,’” Xie said. “ I felt so stressed. It took me a lot of determinations and courage to visit there every time.

“The last time I visited the doctor, a woman suddenly broke into the room and rushed to the doctor when I was sobbing and pouring out my feelings. It made me feel like I was nude and being exposed in broad daylight.” Xie recalled. “I got uncomfortable, and I have never visited there since then.”

The high medicine bill was another burden for Xie. “I couldn’t afford the medical fee on my own,” she said with a sigh.

According to Xie, the expense for a two-week treatment was about ¥400-500, and she had to visit the doctor regularly for long-term treatment. Besides, the fee for treatment isn’t covered in college students’ health insurances.

Xie’s parents don’t want to talk about depression and know little about her condition. “If I mention anything about depression, they will scold me,” she said.

“I will stuff myself lots of desserts when I am at the edge of the cliff,” Xie said. “It brings me dopamine and relieves me. More dopamine, more happiness.”

She thinks that it works better to treat depression as a routine and to get along well with it. It is like quicksand, and the more she tries to escape, the deeper she sinks.

Zhang Yiming, 19, studies in New York University Shanghai and was diagnosed with depression this year.

Zhang described that when she had a seizure, the days would be like she was in hell. She would turn into a ball of incredible shame, guilt, and anxiety, blaming herself.

Gradually, she would become too feeble to do anything like fetching a package, drinking water, and getting up from a chair, which would become exceedingly hard.

Many people know little about depression and have deep-seated misperceptions of it: depression is mainly due to their bad emotions and pessimistic-oriented personality.

“Stay away from people with depression. They are too negative. People always tag a depression patient as a madman and alienate them. It deeply stabbed me,” Zhang said.

According to psychiatrist Huang Tao, depression is much more complicated than people think. Depression is not a single bad mood or emotion. It relates to the connection of neurons. If the connection of neurons in a patient’s brain cannot work as efficiently as normal, their ability to sense happiness will fade. As a result, they fall into a hole of endless emptiness and gradually forget what happiness feels like.

Huang Tao, a psychiatrist in the Overseas Hospital, has worked in field for nearly 20 years.

“We cannot thoroughly find out what depression patients are going through and suffering from,” Huang said with a sigh.

The persistent social stigma associated with depression is the chief culprit for deferred treatment or no treatment at all. Some consider people with a mental disease as insane and isolate them, which may make it difficult for those afflicted to seek treatment.

Other reasons are the lack of medical resources, poorly trained staff, and outdated facilities. In the United States, there are 12 psychiatrists for every 100,000 people. In China, the ratio is less than two psychiatrists for the same population.

“All of these problems are due to the insufficient understanding of depression,” Huang said. “If we can treat depression as seriously as other physical diseases, we won’t discriminate the patients or ignore the abnormal signals.”

The Chinese government has been working on the issue. China passed its first mental health act in 2012.

On April 7, during World Health Day, the WHO and China organized a five-kilometer “Walk and Talk” activities in Beijing, to bring attention to depression and to get more help for sufferers of depression.

Dr. Bernhand Schwartländer, the WHO representative in China, said: “It is simply unacceptable that people who are already struggling with depression should feel stigmatized or blamed for their condition. We must remove the stigma and the shame, supporting our friends and family members who are experiencing depression actively and openly.”


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