Earthquake shifts views of psychology in China

By Carol Schliesinger
The He family left their hometown of Longnan where they are currently living in a tent after their home was destroyed in the recent earthquake and are pictured above on a visit to Xi'an.

He Quanjia picks up his six-year-old daughter so she can get a better view of the 211-foot-tall Big Goose pagoda, a Buddhist temple that attracts numerous tourists to Xian every year. He, his wife Gao Li, and their two young daughters, are visiting the 1,000-year-old temple that although is well-preserved, was closed to visitors for structural damage caused by the earthquake in Sichuan province last May.

The girls are dressed in matching white and pink sundresses and they both sport pigtails. Yet this picture-perfect family is not on vacation. He and his wife wanted to get away from the grief and trauma caused by the Sichuan quake, an event that was felt as far away as Beijing and greatly affected their hometown of Longnan in Ganzu province.

Their house, located about 200 miles from the epicenter, crumbled to pieces. Since then, the family of four has been living in a tent provided by the government. They are grateful that everyone in their family is safe, but staying in Longnan was too depressing. The couple wanted to take their girls away for a while, so they came to Xian. “Too much suffering and grief," He says. "It's not good for the girls. Their school is gone too."

The 7.9-magnitude earthquake that shook Sichuan and neighboring provinces on May 12 has caused grief and trauma to thousands of families, many of them with children. The Chinese government responded to the catastrophe by sending rescue teams and allowing thousands of volunteers, many of them professional counselors, to help victims cope with feelings of stress, fear and grief. The Chinese government even gave the green-light for teams of Russian psychologists to come help the affected population.

When responding to other disasters, the government has also sent rescue teams and volunteers. But in a country where psychological treatment remains highly stigmatized, the government's call to the population to seek help with their mental health stands in stark contrast. During the Cultural Revolution, psychology was denounced as a bourgeois practice and psychology education was completely banned. Only in the late 1970s did the science commence the long march to reestablishCK itself in the Chinese society. Since then, the field has experienced slow but steady growth, according to Capital Normal University psychology professor Lin Lui.

After the earthquake, the Ministry of Education asked professor Lin to travel to the disaster area to train university teachers in reducing victims' stress and dealing with their emotions. Her first trip lasted two days and she trained university teachers who survived the earthquake to counsel other victims. Her second trip lasted 10 days and she worked with middle-school children counseling them and giving them tools to better deal with their grief and trauma.

Lin, who has been teaching for 15 years and has counseled victims of SARS and flooding, believes that the government’s action to publicly promote counseling for earthquake victims sent a new and different signal to the Chinese people about how worthy and effective psychological help can be in unfortunate situations.

“Before the government promoted mental health through mass media advertisements,” Lin says. “The psychology field is better off now. It gives us a chance to prove psychology helps people.”

Zhao Chao studies psychology at East China Normal University, home to one of the top psychology programs in the country. He says middle age and older generations think psychology is useless, partly because during the Cultural Revolution psychology training stopped completely for about 20 years. By the late 1970s, psychology was not considered a natural science and scholars had no way to study other than by going abroad, he says.

“The good thing that came out of the earthquake is it let more people know about psychology and its purpose," Zhao says. "The bad side is they don’t know enough about how psychology works because the government is only providing counseling for a limited time, and some of the victims will need help for decades.”

Based on her experience in the quake zone, Lin is concerned about volunteers who came to help counsel victims with goodwill, but zero professional training. Victims that do not receive proper counseling might not heal their emotional wounds, hence losing faith in the treatment’s effectiveness, she says.

But Zhao says he is optimistic. He spoke to his teachers who volunteered in the earthquake-affected area and said the professors were surprised to find a rather optimistic mood among the survivors.

“Maybe it’s because of the region they live in, full of mountains and nature, [they have] less stress and a better social support system than people in the city," Zhao says. "That makes people feel hopeful about the future.”

A 2006 report from the Ministry of Public Health comparing rural to urban suicide rates shows suicide in rural China has decreased since the early 1990s, while the suicide rate in urban areas has increased during the same periodCK.

Zhao has other concerns, however. With one year of school left before graduation, he's thinking about how he will find a job. He says opportunities dealing with psychology are few and difficult to obtain. People seeking a psychoanalyst usually resort to public clinics, owned by the government and likely to employ good professionals, he says. While in a private clinic, the government does not run the business and for patients that means the government cannot guarantee therapists are professional, he adds. Nevertheless, if a person wants to open a therapy clinic, government approval needs to be obtained first, he says.

Although Zhao became interested in psychology when he was 15 years old, his parents would not support his career choice until shortly before he started college, when he persuaded his parents that he was serious about his professional aspiration.

Lin also believes that more people will become interested in psychology as a career. People are hearing and reading in the media that counseling is helping victims reduce their stress, he says. People all over the nation are concerned about earthquake victims and are more receptive to news that this kind of care can play an active role in healing, she adds.

“As a teacher, it is better to promote psychology, not just with students, but widely among all the people so they can learn ways to deal with their feelings,” says Lin.

Despite being optimistic about the recent publicity, Zhao thinks the psychology field in China has a long way to go before its stigma is reduced and becomes more accepted by the people at large. Both Lin and Zhao believe the country needs a more effective system of counseling services to give professionals more job opportunities and more patients access to professional help. Lin adds that schools needed to increase the depth of psychology courses, while Zhao says internships are badly needed because school courses are mostly theoretical.

As for the He family, they will return to their hometown once their daughters' schoolCK reopens. The parents estimate they will have their house rebuilt in a year with the help of subsidies received from the government. Despite the trauma experienced so far, they remains remain hopeful that once they return to their daily routine, including going back to work and school, it will help normalize their lives,

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