My Life as a Vital, but Unvalued, Mental Health Worker in China
As a psychotherapist, I dream of the day when my services will no longer be necessary. This dream dates from July 2008 — specifically, the last night I spent stationed in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan as a member of the post-earthquake psychology team. Five meters from the safety of my tent sat a school so badly damaged by the magnitude-8.0 shock that it was in danger of collapsing. I will never forget the looks I saw in the eyes of those who survived the disaster, or just how powerless I felt when I realized how little psychotherapy had to offer them.
In the two months I spent stationed in Sichuan, I met many such survivors: children who had lost both their parents, teachers who couldn’t find their families, despondent village cadres struggling to comprehend the scale of the cleanup, and families who had lost their homes. Faced with such a grave tragedy, I realized how underdeveloped the field of psychotherapy was in China. Yet I’m also glad that I experienced that feeling of powerlessness because it gave me clarity of purpose: to help as many people as possible live happier lives. It’s now been 13 years since I started studying psychology, and five since I became a professional psychotherapist. After all that time, this aim is still what keeps me going.
Psychological theories, as they are packaged and presented by the media, are all the rage in China these days. Self-styled “psychological analyses” are often appended to online articles jabbering about whatever celebrity gossip or inane romance has captured the public’s interest. Amid all the hype, backlash, and satire, the only thing these celebrities, social media accounts, and so-called romance experts really care about is gaining new followers and fans. It only works because ordinary people are confused and curious, and therefore willing to trust supposed “experts” in search of answers.
Yet whenever I discuss the real state of psychology in China with my peers, they seem full of apprehension and frustration. Psychotherapy is supposed to be about helping people live happier lives, yet in today’s impulsive, materialistic society, it has been reduced to just another way for people to make a quick buck.
However, these abovementioned writers are only using psychology to get famous, while the social media accounts that host their claptrap are only in it for the advertising revenue. Netizens are exposed to innumerable pieces of sponsored content and other forms of subtle advertising online. Each reader is a real person, and they’re being misled by irresponsible words. What kind of impact does this content have on their lives and mindsets?
In 2008, I’d already been studying psychology abroad for more than three years, and the endless flood of course readings — all of them in English, my second language — was proving to be more than I could handle. Unable to see the light at the end of the tunnel, I grew increasingly unsure about my choice of career. At the time, the Chinese public had an even more limited understanding of psychology than today, and there were few Chinese students in my classes.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2016 there was an average of one mental health professional for every 1,700 Americans. Meanwhile, in China there is only one trained psychotherapist per 83,000 Chinese. Society here does not fully appreciate the importance of this job, and my family and close relatives have all tried to convince me to consider switching fields.
These days, there is nothing more important to me than realizing my dream of one day putting all psychotherapists out of work, no matter how futile that seems. I ensure that each article I write and podcast I record is tailored to helping my audience. The two questions I’m asked most often are, “Isn’t psychology hard to study?” and “Don’t you ever get depressed due to the constant ‘negative’ emotions you’re exposed to?”
I always answer the same way: No, it’s not hard, and no, it’s not depressing. My work isn’t just a job; it is an integral part of my existence. In the five years I’ve spent as a psychotherapist, I’ve worked with clients from all over China and from all walks of life. They come to me and lay bare their lives in unflinching detail. I become privy to their pain and their struggles, but I also catch glimpses of how strong and resourceful they are.
I’ve helped survivors of domestic violence and emotional abuse move past the unbearable suffering of their past. I’ve helped patients with profound childhood trauma find the will to go on living. I’ve helped people of different sexual orientations come to accept their bodies and desires. People seek help for all sorts of different reasons. The role of my profession is to approach each case patiently and with a readiness to work.
With my clients, I don’t pretend to know everything, nor do I want them to become dependent on me. For my book, “Irrelationship,” I drew on my own experiences of growing up and undergoing self-therapy.
In theory, therapists should limit the number of personal disclosures they make, but I wanted to convey to those who read the book that I had gone through the same pains and difficulties that they had — and that I might therefore be able to understand them. My relationships with my wife, my parents, and myself are the three biggest contributing factors to my happiness. Often, these relationships can seem intimate on the surface, but in reality, they may not be fully transparent, which can lead to a lack of fulfillment and feelings of alienation.
Psychotherapy is a relatively new profession in China, one that’s sorely needed among people coping with the increasingly complexity and chaos of modern life. Having helped many people overcome their challenges, I’ve realized that the ability to help others move toward happiness brings me deep satisfaction. To listen to, care about, work with, and support someone is to fully see them as a person.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Lu Hongyong and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: Yu Xuan’ge/VCG)