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    Young Chinese Turn to Taobao for Psychological Support

    On Taobao, young Chinese can find plenty of people willing to help them talk through their mental health struggles for a fee. However, it is unclear where companionship ends and counseling begins.
    Oct 09, 2023#health

    Du Xiaomiao, 29, launched her online chat service on e-commerce platform Taobao in April. For only 5 yuan ($0.69), clients can talk to Du about whatever they want for however long they want. Her store is called “tree hollow,” or shudong, which refers to online spaces for people to express their anxieties and mental struggles.

    With each session usually lasting two to three hours, Du listens to customers as they share what has been bothering them and make confessions. From time to time, despite having no official counseling training, the financial planner offers clients her thoughts and advice.

    “I see many people stuck in their relationships … Although I can’t help all of them, I try my best to help those I meet,” Du told Sixth Tone. She calls herself a “healer” rather than a counselor. 

    With loneliness and mental health issues on the rise among young Chinese, more and more people are turning to online chat services due to their affordability and convenience. The format suits “socially awkward” young Chinese who shy away from in-person interactions, as well as those that enjoy the company of strangers based on common interests, part of the dazi social trend that has heated up in recent months. 

    This has led to the explosion of services like Du’s on sites like Taobao, which advertise themselves as offering “companion chats” rather than traditional psychological counseling.

    Many of them claim to offer “comfort” and “guidance” in their advertising. However, the difference between the services they offer and psychological counseling is often not clear.

    Huang, 28, launched his online chat service on Taobao in mid-September. Within just a few weeks, he already has around 80 clients a day. Huang now employs around 40 staff members and is hiring more to meet excess demand.

    “The market is continuously growing as it seems that, currently, many people need psychological support,” said Huang, who only gave his surname. Though he did not say how many orders he gets a month, another popular Taobao vendor shows sales of more than 40,000 orders a month.

    Huang’s store offers four different levels of service according to the experience and qualifications of the counselor. For a 15-minute phone call, the cheapest counselor costs 20 yuan, while the most expensive is 90 yuan for a certified counselor.

    Such services offer cheaper prices as well as greater flexibility than offline counseling, which can run up to 1,500 yuan per session. One of China’s leading online mental health service providers, One Psychology, has rolled out a simple “chat” service, priced at 19.9 yuan for 30 minutes.

    While full-fledged service providers like One Psychology have some qualification requirements for their counselors, chat service providers on sites like Taobao have far lower barriers to entry for theirs. As most clients only want a “simple chat,” staff members only have to be over 18 years old, chatty, and have a nice voice, said Huang.

    Most of his staff are female university students with spare time who want to earn extra income like Shi, who enjoys the flexibility of the work. A senior at university, she started offering online chat services part-time a year ago. She can choose when to take up new orders, and she can work for as many vendors as she wants.

    She usually spends up to two hours a day texting clients, sometimes during her classes. They are mostly men who are “just looking for someone to talk to.” However, some try to steer the conversations toward sexual topics, at which point their orders are immediately canceled.

    Of Huang’s 40 staff members, only two have any sort of professional training. One of them, Li Qiuyu, was the one who urged Huang to start the business after seeing the potential of the online chat service market.

    Li, 36, had worked for almost two decades in human resources, which included giving career advice and counseling. During the pandemic, her company experienced a rapid downturn, prompting her to reconsider her career.

    After trying out offering career counseling online and feeling a sense of accomplishment, she took an official counseling course and received a certificate from the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security.

    In her view, the chat services on sites like Taobao are related to psychotherapy as both require listening. Although everyone can enter the industry and offer their services, she believes the market will eliminate the unqualified over time.

    However, some industry veterans disagree that such services are a form of psychological counseling. Zhou Xiaopeng, a psychologist certified by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security with 18 years of experience, believes that real counseling is about more than just listening and providing emotional support, and is rather about offering solutions and helping clients address their problems.

    “Psychological counseling helps clients combat their negative sides, while these ‘online chat services’ support greed and laziness,” Zhou told Sixth Tone.

    Taobao requires vendors offering counseling services to have at least three certified professionals working for them and a relevant business license. Lin Bin, a customer service supervisor at Taobao, told Sixth Tone that simple chat services on the platform cannot claim to provide professional psychological treatment.

    For those that do meet the requirements, Lin said there is yet to be a “unified standard” for the types of counseling that may be offered on the platform as official guidance is still lacking.

    Taobao also blocks searches for “companion chats” on the platform as there may be “inappropriate” interpretations of the term among the general public, Lin explained. However, other search terms such as “tree hollow” and “chat” can direct customers to these chat services.

    According to the World Health Organization, around 54 million and 41 million people in China suffer from depression and anxiety, respectively. However, there is insufficient supply of mental health resources to meet demand as well as a lack of willingness to pay for mental health treatment. State media has reported that the penetration rate in the Chinese mental health industry is only about 10%, citing the estimates of a leading Tsinghua University professor.

    Since 2020, the National Health Commission has issued guidelines focused on increasing mental healthcare provision, including the greater promotion of online counseling services by state-run institutions such as hospitals and schools.

    Nonetheless, the nascent online counseling industry still lacks regulatory supervision, including the protection of consumer rights. Online counselor Alice Wang, who requested a pseudonym for privacy reasons, told Sixth Tone that her vendor sometimes matches clients with counselors lower than the rank they paid for.

    In 2020, domestic media outlet Guangming Online called for the establishment of industry standards for online counseling service providers and urged official mental healthcare institutions to expand their online services in order to prevent unqualified individuals from entering the industry.

    Editor: Vincent Chow.

    (Header image: VCG)