Chinese Adolescents Grapple with Depression
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2016-05-10 08:58:24

Being an adolescent anywhere in the world is not always easy.

But in China, where competition to outperform others — especially in the academic arena — can be intense, and what should be carefree years often aren’t.

On Tuesday the British science journal The Lancet issued a global report on health challenges facing the world’s young people. China-specific data provided to Sixth Tone showed that depression for 15- to 24-year-olds in China is on the rise.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines depression as a frequently occurring mental disorder, with symptoms including “sadness, loss of interest or pleasure, feelings of guilt or low self-worth, disturbed sleep or appetite, feelings of tiredness, and poor concentration.” In severe cases, these symptoms may lead to suicide.

The WHO estimates that there are 350 million people with the disorder worldwide.

According to professor Yu Xin, a psychiatrist with Peking University Sixth Hospital, the number of depression patients in China is estimated at a minimum of 40 million.

The Lancet data showed that almost 1.2 million Chinese young people aged 15 to 24 have depressive disorders.

Specifically, the prevalence rate among 15- to 19-year-olds increased to 0.46 percent in 2013 from 0.45 percent in 1990. For 20- to 24-year-olds, the rate increased to 0.62 percent from 0.60 percent over the same time period.

Globally, around 10 percent of people between the ages of 10 and 24 have depression, The Lancet report said.

The Lancet report is based on analysis of the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study 2013, which covers data from 188 countries for the period 1990 to 2013. The sample size of that study could not be immediately determined. 

According to Wang Gang, vice president of the psychiatric department at Beijing Anding Hospital, increasing pressure at home and at school can trigger depression among adolescents. “As teenagers spend more time on their studies, they have less time to communicate with their peers,” Wang told Sixth Tone. “And this is a big problem for their mental health.”

Most parents do not see their children’s problem as depression, but rather a weakness in character, Wang said, adding, “Most adolescent patients have had depression for months — sometimes even two or three years — before they turn to doctors for help.”

In April, a mother and father took their 18-year-old daughter to a hospital in Guangzhou with the aim of verifying that she did not have depression. The girl had previously tried to commit suicide. When she told her parents she was depressed, they did not believe her. Instead, they thought she was pretending and just not tough enough to endure the pressure of her rigorous school examinations.

A severe shortage of psychiatrists in China is also a critical issue. There are only about 20,000 psychiatrists in the whole country. Conversely, in the U.S. there are around 49,000, according to the American Medical Association. China’s total population is almost five times that of its neighbor across the Pacific.

Psychiatrists at Beijing Anding Hospital, for example, see around 60 patients a day on average.

China also faces a lack of psychiatrists who specialize in treating teenagers, said Wang. This is important because the mental condition of young adults is different from that of other population groups, which means they need different types of treatment and medication.

The situation is even worse for young people living in China’s countryside. A 2015 UNICEF report titled “Situation analysis on adolescent health in China” shows that the depression rate among adolescents in rural areas is even higher than the rate among city dwellers in the same age range.

“Knowledge of depression is crucial to preventing and curing the problem,” Wang said.

Awareness of depression in China was raised earlier this year when Lin Jiawen, a high school prodigy in ancient Chinese history, killed himself. His suicide was widely reported as being the result of a battle with depression.

The 18-year-old was hailed by fans as a genius — he had already published two critically-acclaimed history books as a teenager. But unbeknownst to many, Lin had been dealing with depression for more than six months.

Wang said there is still a stigma attached to having depression, and that while the number of people seeking out help is growing, the overall rate remains low.

“Those who choose to see a psychiatrist are the lucky ones,” Wang said. “But we can only help the ones who come to us.”

Additional reporting by Yan Jie.

(Header image: A patient with depression in the ‘mood drain room’ at Fuzhou Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital, Fujian province, May 11, 2014. Liu Tao/VCG)