Moving on with trauma, Self-help of depression patients in China

By Jane Zhang

Chen Aiming’s life fell to the bottom when he stood on one rooftop in Fuzhou on July 24th 2016. Recalling the past 28 years, he could hardly think of any sweet memories but how unfair life had treated him—born with lisp in a poor rural family, ostracized by peers when he was a child and dumped by his girlfriend. He saw no way out of his life in tatters. As he contemplated throwing himself off, a stranger hundred miles away called him to persuade him to get off the rooftop. Using her knowledge about psychological intervention, Liu Hong, the founder of China’s largest anti-depression NGO, saved Chen from the edge of death.

Similar cases take place in China almost every day. However, the government has done far from enough for its depression sufferers. The lack of knowledge about depression, family support as well as medical and mental treatment resources are all barriers they need to cross.

According to World Health Organization’s report, depression will be the second leading cause of world disability by 2020. In 2014, China had roughly 23,000 psychiatrists — 1.7 for every 100,000 people, much lower than 11 and 12 for every 100,000 in Russia and US respectively. With such low psychiatrist patient ratio in China, many patients cannot get resources they need, especially in remote, rural corners of China.

But a group of NGOs like Liu’s are now filling in the gap in this domain. These NGOs, often staffed by people who have encountered depression themselves or through family members, are startling to help. For Liu’s NGO, Tulip Sunshine, they have influenced more than 60,000 people around China, helped around 70 people recover and saved 6 lives.

Though they are only a tiny part when compared with estimated 90 million depression sufferers in China, these NGOs have now become an emerging force to help Chinese people out from a disease that is stigmatized among many families.

One Lucky Dog in Tons of Tragedies

Chen’s story can be traced back to 2016. Chen joined some social groups on QQ and Wechat (Two popular social platforms in China) when he suspected himself to have got depression. Actually, he had no choice. Having to hand most of his salary to his mother with only 200 RMB as pocket money to pay phone bill, searching information online was the only way he can afford.

Doing three jobs every day from 7 am to 11:30 pm, Chen can earn much more money than at home. For thousands of lower educated Chinese people like him, it is now much easier to break the economic shackles than the mental illness shackles.

“While economy is improving a lot and society is changing dramatically, the mental state of the Chinese people has not progressed that much. People are faced with more conflicts. However, not everyone can adapt to new environment very well.” Doctor Ma Yongchun, deputy chief physician in Tongde Hospital of Zhejiang Province said.

No weekends, no holidays and no entertainment—Chen was isolated by heavy daily routine work. Breaking up with his girlfriend was the last straw that breaks the camel’s back. As Chen was about to jump off the building, he posted his will to the social groups rather than his parents to say goodbye to the world.

It’s a lucky coincidence for Liu Hong to see the message and saved Chen. But stopping Chen from killing himself is not the end of the story. Liu called Chen’s family to persuade them to give him money to see doctor. But she was treated as a member of some multi-level marketing (MLM) organization that wanted to cheat money out Chen. Eventually Chen went to a hospital in Fuzhou after Liu borrowed some money to him.

“If we want really get rid of depression, we have to rely on ourselves. Others can push you forward a little bit. But they can’t help much.” Chen said.

The Largest Anti-depression NGO in China

As the founder of the largest depression support NGO in China, this was not the only time Liu Hong has saved depression patients when they were about to kill themselves. She wants to build Tulip Sunshine as a platform to empower depression sufferers and draw strength from their family.

Liu came up with the idea when her daughter was diagnosed with depression in 2014. She didn’t know what she can do to help apart from bring her daughter to see doctors from different hospitals. She had been tormented with remorse, pain and confuse. She didn’t want people to fall into her track. So when she failed to find a platform where depression patients and their family can share their experiences and support each other, she decided to set up one by herself.

“The members (depression sufferers) don’t know each other but they bug and cry together. In some offline activities, members can find their companion. They find their soul mates, a group in which people can understand each other and pour out their hearts. They feel hopeful.” Liu Hong said.

Tulip Sunshine offered depression patients opportunities to express themselves through Wechat and online radio channels. But Liu doesn’t want Tulip Sunshine to be another online chatting room. She is ambitious about Tulip Sunshine: she wants to help people without knowledge of depression be equipped with more information; she wants to help people who already got depression find the right way to treat it; and she wants to help those who recovered go back to society and find a job.

These ideas are not her random thoughts. She is actually putting them into practices. She has cooperated with Doctor Ma to build a database to monitor depression patients’ mental state so that professionals can intervene as soon as possible once there is an emergency.

At present, Tulip Sunshine has 20 branches in different cities in China with around one hundred volunteers. Most of the volunteers either used to get depression or were family of depression patients. Liu wants to expand the branches to 50 cities this year.

“My real aim is that every city will have a branch” Liu Hong said, “It’s a lamp that shed light on depression patients in darkness. Finding out the organization and getting together with peers is the beginning of recovery.”

However, not every anti-depression NGO develops as well as Tulip Sunshine. In 2004, Yu Jinxiang, the first anti-depression NGO in China was founded by Chen Wei, a severe depression patient in Shanghai. At that time, there’s barely no sources available for depression patients. It would be a low cost but effective way if the patients themselves can help each other. But just like some other similar NGO then, most of them went nowhere because of the founder’s relapse of depression.

“Anti-depression organizations are not different from other vulnerable groups like LGBT. It’s all about a small group of people that need to be understood.” a volunteer from Yu Jinxiang said.

Every Little Helps a Mickle

Not as lucky as Chen, Du Huasong cured himself of severe depression by reading psychological books and even getting a psychological counselor certificate. Getting good command of relative knowledge and used to be trapped in same situation, Du thinks that he has the advantage of understanding depression patients’ pain and sorrow better than those who just know theories.

Unable to undertake the workload of a full time job, Du is now freelancing. He has taken an active part in live online and held dozens of sharing lectures, through which he can affect more people by setting a shining example for depression sufferers. In the future, he plans to open his own psychological counselling office.

“The most terrifying thing about depression is not that it can kill people but when one can realize to have got depression, his or her life has already been ruined,” Du said, “At that time, one can no longer work and live as a normal person.”

Watching his cat die in front of him triggered Du Huasong’s depression. Du still feels hurt deep in heart whenever he recalled his parents blamed him of having depression and making the family “no peace”.

Du’s parents are not rare cases. People can easily misunderstand depression when they get lost in the sea of information searching engines show, most of which are either arcane theories from experts and scholars or emotional and provocative stories from depression patients. Many people in China still treat mental illnesses like depression as drugs, both of which, to their understanding, can simply be conquered by strong personal will. These misunderstandings can cause unintentional harm to depression patients.

Anti-depression medicine stopped Du from killing himself. But side effects such as memory loss and drowsiness were heavy burden for him. His spiritual world became empty. And there were no mood swings, which is not how normal people live their lives—they experience happiness and sorrows.

Du said, “Depression has taken over my happiness while anti-depression medicine has stolen my pain. I want them both back in my life.”

These NGOs and ex-depression patients like Du have different opinions about recovery with doctors.

“I believe that community rehabilitation is the ultimate goal and is real recovery. What we want is not clinical rehabilitation. We want people to get rid of medicine and have a healthy lifestyle. We are trying now.” Liu Hong said when talking about future plans.

Depression cannot be healed just by medicine. Depression patients should be listened, understood and supported. Mental care and medicine both play important roles in the long process of depression treatment.

“The illnesses that human can totally cure are limited. Most of the diseases are chronic, which means people have to learn how to live with a disease, even tumors.” Doctor Ma said.


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