China has a complex history in the treatment of the mentally ill. In 1849, the first mental institutions in the country were founded by Western missionaries. One of them, Dr. John G. Kerr, instituted some principles which are even valid today. Among those principles were the following: mentally ill patients shouldn’t be blamed for their actions; those that were hospitalized were not in a prison but in a hospital and should be treated as human beings, not as animals.
During the Cultural Revolution there were changes that lead to strong political control, over-diagnosis and treatment, a change that overshadowed patients’ real needs. Many mentally-ill patients were sent to labor camps because of their ‘counterrevolutionary behavior’. Western models of treatment were gradually introduced only after the reforms advocated by Den Xiaoping. Today, however, serious problems remain such as the high number of untreated mentally ill patients, inadequate services, and lack of trained personnel.
The spectrum of mental illness is broad, and includes minor conditions such as anxiety to depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and other problems that may lead to drug addiction and serious crimes. In 2009, the World Health Organization (WHO) stated that mental illness –which affected seven percent of the population- had overtaken heart disease and cancer as the biggest burden on China’s health care system.
According to a study by The Lancet, roughly 173 million Chinese suffer from a mental health disorder. 158 million of those have never received professional help for their disease. Despite this high number, China averages only one psychiatrist for every 83,000 people –approximately one twelfth the ratio in the United States and other industrialized countries. This led one professional psychiatrist to remark, “We are like pandas. There are only a few thousand of us.”
The need for psychiatrists, however, is growing. According The Lancet, the incidence of mental disorders had increased more than 50 percent between 2003 and 2008. Although some of these cases can be due to improved diagnosis, most cases can result from more stressful life conditions. These conditions may be one of the causes for the increasing number of individual who commit violent crimes.