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    Millennial Misery Fuels Online Pop Psychology

    In a country that struggles to talk about its feelings, web-based platforms are helping youngsters make sense of their emotions.

    SHANDONG, East China — At around 7:40 a.m., 29-year-old insurance broker Sun Zhensheng squeezes onto a crowded bus bound for the center of the coastal city of Qingdao. Having elbowed his way into the throng, Sun begins his morning ritual: He takes out his smartphone, opens WeChat, and idly scrolls through the newest articles on KnowYourself, one of his favorite psychology platforms.

    Sun is especially interested in articles about social anxiety and personal growth — two issues that have dogged him for years. “I get nervous easily when I speak in public: I blush every time I speak at a work meeting,” he says, adding that he still avoids social activities and has very few close friends, even after having lived in Qingdao for a decade.

    Online psychology platforms are gaining popularity in China — where many are unaccustomed to talking openly about their feelings and mental health issues are often swept under the rug. Here, web-based platforms with a psychological focus are helping young people better understand what’s going through their heads.

    Although Sun says his lifestyle in Qingdao is much better than it was in his hometown in rural Shandong, he still describes himself as “adrift” in the city. Some weekends, he rides the bus for an hour to a restaurant on the other side of town, just to kill time. “Loneliness haunts me, especially late at night when silence falls,” he says. “Sometimes, I feel that life is meaningless. But that’s not something I’m able to discuss with other people.”

    Sun’s mental struggles are understandable to Zhang Jingjie, KnowYourself’s bespectacled 28-year-old content director. Since the publication of its first WeChat article back in 2015, the company’s pieces on human personalities, emotions, and relationships have attracted roughly 4 million followers across multiple social media platforms.

    Zhang believes that the company’s articles resonate most with people between 18 and 35 years old, while the platform’s in-house surveys have found that most of its 2.2 million WeChat followers live in large cities, and that over 80 percent of them are university students or graduates.

    Many millennial readers struggle with decisions that shape their future careers, intimate relationships, and personal fulfillment, Zhang says: “Some have left home for the first time, some have just embarked on their career. This is a special period that strongly shapes their personalities.”

    The platform’s most popular articles touch on the themes of anxiety, loneliness, and self-esteem. Last year, China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission reported that rising numbers of people are being diagnosed with depression and anxiety.

    Online psychology platforms are particularly popular among China’s young, well-educated urbanites, and have flourished since 2015 under a government-initiated campaign to stimulate mass entrepreneurship and innovation, says Huang Hsuan-ying, a psychiatric anthropology professor from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. App-based platforms distinguish themselves from television, radio, and online blogs by their greater accessibility and social media influence. “The staff members of these startups are younger and have backgrounds in formal psychological training,” Huang says. “They place higher demands on the content’s quality.”

    KnowYourself’s airy, open-plan Shanghai office is staffed by twentysomething psychology graduates sitting at desks weighed down by neat piles of academic books. At times, the work feels like a natural extension of their college courses: It’s common for lunch hours to devolve into anything from lively discussions about the American psychologist-cum-philosopher Erich Fromm to on-the-spot psychoanalyses of coworkers — all taken in good humor, of course.

    Staff aim to provide well-researched articles and deliberately eschew what Zhang calls “Chicken Soup-style” content: the motivational, if somewhat sappy, pieces churned out by other social media accounts. “We are trying to appeal both to [psychology] professionals and to average readers with no background in the subject,” explains Qian Zhuang, KnowYourself’s 28-year-old founder, who admits that she did not expect the platform to draw so much attention when she began casually writing and uploading articles onto WeChat in 2015. “This generation is starting to pay more attention to themselves, to their own emotional states, and to their relationships with others,” she says.

    The company earns money by selling advertising space, online psychology courses, and event tickets. Its latest two-day psychology festival in Shanghai — which included speakers, musical performances, and games — attracted over 1,600 people. It also organizes offline support groups and matches subscribers with mental health counselors.

    Similar platforms like MyTherapist — a popular WeChat account founded by psychological counselor Li Zhen in 2014 — match clients with qualified mental health professionals. MyTherapist also boasts legions of social media followers and, like its main competitor, offers online courses and training sessions.

    Those expected to benefit most from China’s economic development — for instance, urban residents and the highly educated — actually report lower-than-average levels of satisfaction with their lives, according to a 2015 report on happiness in China by the Brookings Institution, an American think tank. The report claims that this is because these groups tend to have above-average aspirations while also experiencing pressure to succeed, long working hours, and a perceived lack of security — all of which affect their psychological well-being.

    The younger generation’s fragile happiness has roots in its upbringing, says Hu Miaomiao, a Shanghai-based psychological counselor who commonly treats young people. The majority of young Chinese city-dwellers are only children schooled in a hyper-competitive education system that discourages cooperation with their peers, Hu adds. “Many of them learn very little about how to work together and how to deal with interpersonal relationships when they grow older,” he says. “This generation tends to be more selfish — but they’re lonelier, too.”

    The problem is exacerbated by the generation gap, Hu explains. Many young people do not communicate their psychological problems to their parents for fear that the older generation will not understand their issues or will dismiss them as unimportant. “But unresolved childhood issues may turn into bigger psychological problems later on in their lives,” Hu says.

    While there is a huge demand for counseling and other mental health services in China, the country lacks a strong psychological support network. A report from the World Health Organization states that there were 1.7 psychiatrists per 100,000 people in China in 2014, compared with 12 per 100,000 in the United States and 11 per 100,000 in Russia.

    Qian, KnowYourself’s founder, says she grew up in a troubled family and was bullied a lot at her middle school in the coastal city of Taizhou. “I was hurting, but it seemed natural to hold it in,” she recalls. “I was not even aware that I should seek help.” Although she was a straight-A student and graduated from top-ranked colleges in both China and the United States, she never asked herself what kind of life she wanted to have until her career advisor at Columbia University questioned her about it. Floored by the question, Qian later realized that neither she nor many of her peers truly understood themselves.

    “KnowYourself could never have the same influence in countries like the United States, where there is a very mature psychological services industry,” Qian says. “Americans can easily find social workers, counselors, psychiatrists, whomever. But that’s not the case in China.”

    In the future, Qian hopes to engage more readers from the country’s smaller, more parochial cities, who probably feel similar pressures to those in larger urban areas but are often unable to get help. “Children who grow up in developed regions have access to psychological support early on in life. But some of those who grow up in underdeveloped regions are never given the option,” she says.

    KnowYourself’s most popular article so far this year critiqued a statement by celebrity relationship guru Ayawawa in which she appeared to suggest that women should comply with male expectations and avoid being seen as unconventional or independent. KnowYourself’s article claimed that such attitudes encouraged women to objectify themselves in their romantic relationships.

    Other articles have generated unexpected responses. Qian says that many users read about personal relationships or mental health issues, and then forward the articles to their partners, parents, or friends on WeChat instead of talking to them in person. “It is difficult for people to talk seriously with one another about intimate things. Some people share more secrets with us than they do with their parents and friends,” Qian says. “If they’re talking to someone they know in real life, they might send a simple ‘ha-ha’ or an emoji. In a way, these articles are icebreakers, bringing up topics that people otherwise might not be able to discuss.”

    Hu, the Shanghai-based counselor, agrees that online psychology platforms have broadly been forces for good, but that an absence of further psychological services might cause some readers to exaggerate their problems and wrongly believe that they have more serious psychological issues than they really do. “A critical problem is what to do next,” he says. “China is still in the initial phase of providing psychological services.”

    For years, Sun, the insurance broker in Qingdao, blamed his social awkwardness on his introverted personality. Now, he is beginning to associate these behaviors with his upbringing in an underprivileged rural family. “I started to realize that I often avoid situations that make me feel inferior to others,” he says. “Even when I was a kid, I avoided playing with my cousin, whose family was wealthier than mine.” Though Sun has largely left that life behind, he still reports having strong feelings of inferiority and still deeply cares about other people’s impressions of him.

    He is trying to change his life for the better, signing up for first aid training, a book club, and a half-marathon in the nearby city of Yantai. “I hope that by engaging in more social activities and communicating more with others, I can become more comfortable and confident when I talk to people,” Sun says. “I have started to acknowledge and accept my shortcomings, although it is difficult to care less about what other people think.”

    Editor: Matthew Walsh.

    (Header image: People ride bicycles toward a crowd of pedestrians in downtown Beijing, March 14, 2017. Qilai Shen/Bloomberg/VCG)