Extending social support to the mentally ill

By Will Wu, August 13, 2015

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The control and relief work for mental illness is not the job of just one governmental department or mental hospital. It requires a comprehensive service system that includes government organs, hospitals and, of course, the community,” says Li Jie, the vice director of Guangzhou Huiai Hospital.

To date, Guangdong’s capital is home to 55,000 registered mentally ill persons, 49,000 of whom reportedly suffer from serious illnesses such as schizophrenia and manic-depressive psychosis. Clearly, a single monitoring body is insufficient for the job.

Since 2007, the municipal government has paved the way for building a full-scale mental health-care system. In addition to allocating two or three psychiatrists (with the right to prescribe medication) to each of the 12 districts, the local authorities are also funding professional social services to assist in the recovery of those with psychiatric disorders. Currently, there are 10 behavioral health centers in Guangzhou that help to stabilize and improve patients’ lives outside of psych wards.

Yuexiu Mental Health Center is one of these places. Set up in May 2014 on Donghe Jie, it is responsible for the psychological well-being of people living within its jurisdiction. Eight professional social workers operate the complex, sharing jobs such as building profiles, rehabilitation training, counseling and follow-up checkups. Opening the door to those suffering from various levels of psychosis, the facility sees daily visits from around 30 members of the community.

“We do not call them ‘patients’ here. Instead, we call them ‘rehabilitants,’” says Huang Xiaoqian, a social worker at the center.

Every workday, normally in the afternoon, interest classes are held for the rehabilitants. Singing, dancing and arts and crafts are among the options. The day we visit, a horticultural lesson is already underway. Eighteen men and women sit at four round tables, learning step by step how to plant a peperomia in a small pot. It looks like a regular course, quiet and organized. Some attendees even jot down key points in their notebooks.

Ou Hong is in charge of planning and preparing these group activities. “The class is usually hosted by only one instructor and one supervisor,” says Ou. “No tuition fee is charged. All we want is to encourage the rehabilitants to be more engaged with others and the outside world.”

A distinct characteristic of most mental patients is that they are withdrawn, afraid of interacting with people and the world. It is a crucial step for the psychologically unwell to go out of their homes and come to the center. As a result, bringing in one rehabilitant is considered a success, which only occurs after several months of home visits as well as repeated, sincere talks with the individual and his or her family.

In addition to hosting daily pursuits, Yuexiu Mental Health is also where Guangzhou’s first halfway house for the formerly hospitalized is situated. “Most patients find it hard to readjust to society after being discharged from a hospital. The halfway house is like a buffer zone to help them prepare, both mentally and physically,” says Xie Qianying, deputy project manager of the center.

Extending support in halfway homes for the mentally ill.

Currently, there are eight rehabilitants living in the halfway house. They take up hobbies during the day and receive tailored training at night to restore basic self-care abilities impacted by their disorder.

“Living together with people suffering from a similar illness is actually less stressful. We encourage them to focus on helping each other, as peer assistance plays a crucial role during one’s recovery period,” says Xie.

Up to 80 percent of the center’s regulars are suffering from schizophrenia, an illness associated with aggressiveness in most people’s minds. Surprisingly, the three staff we talk to, Huang, Ou and Xie, all point out that the percentage of mental patients who have attacked others is relatively low. According to Ning Yuping, Director of Huiai Hospital, only 5 to 10 percent of schizophrenics have the impulse to commit violent acts.

“The media sometimes exaggerates the image of mental patients, depicting them as too dangerous to be around,” Ou says.

In May this year, Guangzhou Metro Daily, the second most circulated newspaper in Guangzhou, published a news story about a man suspected of suffering from schizophrenia assaulting a young boy. “The article indirectly implies that all schizophrenic patients are dangerous and that they would assault others without reason,” says Ou. “That kind of rhetoric unfairly stigmatizes this group of people. Help for the mentally ill calls for integration, not marginalization. Why not have more positive reports?”

The center has urged the newspaper to release an apology or clarification, but so far there has been no reply.

Widespread fear and ignorance of people with psychiatric disorders not only hinders the public from gaining a comprehensive and accurate understanding of the illness, it also impedes recruitment. Each of the eight social workers at Yuexiu Mental Health handles at least 40 cases each. They clock in overtime every day, consumed and overworked. According to data provided by the Guangzhou Municipal Public Health Bureau, however, there are over 4,000 registered individuals with behavioral health issues living within their jurisdiction.

“We want to hire more qualified social workers, but the reality is few want to do a job that earns little while introducing potential risks,” Xie says with a bitter smile.

Yet despite such complications, social services for rehabilitants in Guangzhou are improving every day. Around eight annual community-themed activities are held in each district in an attempt to erase myths and prejudice while improving factual knowledge. Work therapy stations are available to assist stable patients looking to re-enter the workforce. The system of hospital referral is undergoing reform.

Change will be gradual, but at least it’s underway. In a few decades, afflicted families may even dare to turn to their communities for help, transforming a once taboo subject into a constructive topic of discussion.

The media sometimes exaggerates the image of mental patients, depicting them as too dangerous to be around


How can you help?

We talked with several social workers to discover the best ways to help those with psychiatric disorders.


Adam Chen

Experience: 14 years

“When you’re told someone is unhappy, you may tell him or her not to feel upset or simply ask what is causing the sadness. These are the wrong approaches, as the former deprives one of the right to be unhappy and the latter demands an answer. The same goes with mental patients. When they talk to you, never rush to analyze their problems. Be a patient listener. If possible, join in laid-back activities they enjoy before digging into their depression.”


Chen Qujing

Experience: Two years

“Family cooperation plays a key role in a patient’s recovery. Some family members avoid getting involved. That in fact slows down the whole treatment process. If one of your family members is experiencing mental issues, the best way to show your support is to express your willingness to accompany them, no matter what.”


Ou Hong

Experience: Six months

“Mental patients are not retarded. So never treat them like they have intellectual disabilities. Meanwhile, respect their identity by inviting their input or asking for their assistance. Be sure they know they are valued, not despised or worthless.”


Huang Xiaoqian

Experience: One year

“Prejudice must be eliminated. Having a mental problem is like catching a cold. Everybody has the chance to experience it under today’s great social pressure. If people better understood the problem, admitting one’s mental illness wouldn’t be so humiliating. Help would then be timelier.”


// Click here to view more stories from our mental health series.


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