Reflections on Mental Health in the Context of Chinese Diaspora

Content Warning: Depression, Suicide, Mental Health, Victim Blaming, Bullying

I drew a number line on a piece of paper as I tried to explain the concept of an absolute value to a student from Chester Children’s Chorus, whom I tutor math to. Flashbacks swamped me, tears welling up in my eyes. I quickly looked up at the ceiling to hold back the tears and took a deep breath. I remembered struggling with the concept of an absolute value in sixth grade. My middle-school best friend, S, who stayed after class and drew the number lines again and again with me, took her own life a week and a half ago. 

Since S’ death, I have been thinking about what could have been done to stop the tragedy. More accessible counseling services at school? More social awareness on mental health? Could I have been a more caring and supportive friend? I first noticed the differences in perceiving mental illnesses between the global east and west. In the U.S., my peers are more open to sharing mental health problems with their family and close friends. Through public and private discussions and health education, we learned that mental illnesses are just as legitimate as physical illnesses and can be alleviated through external interventions such as therapy and medication. I wish this education and support had been available for S. I believe that in China, there should be more awareness, education, and support from family members, teachers, and peers.

In Chinese culture, at least in Shanghai, where S and I attended middle school together, mental illness is immediately associated with two things: weakness and incompetence. In some Chinese philosophies, emotions come from the “heart,” an entity separated from the physical body. A person with a strong will is expected to take full control over their “heart,” which means that they should be able to eliminate negative thoughts, make themselves feel happy, and inhibit their desires when necessary, regardless of the external environment they are in. At the same time, a strong will is considered something that can be attained as long as the person puts in enough hard work and turns discipline into a habit. 

Additionally, mental illnesses such as depression affect a person’s level of ability to focus and motivation to work. In metropolitan regions in China, individual productivity is highly valued, and thus people with mental illness are often considered to exhibit signs of incompetency. Not only does the pressure come from society, but also an individual’s family. Some parents and/or other family members repeatedly demand that their children make themselves feel happy, have a good temperament, and stay focused without realizing that their children cannot control how they are feeling. Just because an illness is invisible doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or is less valid than visible illnesses. 

The lack of mental health literacy in China has persisted over generations. In a conversation with my mom about mental health this past weekend, she told me for the first time that she suffered from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder in her late teens. Her mother, my grandma, was reluctant to take her to see a doctor. Even after the doctor announced the diagnosis, my grandma still repeatedly asked the doctor in disbelief, “Is this really an illness? Does she really have to take medications? Are the symptoms just part of her personality?” The lack of mental health awareness at home and at school leads to less understanding and support for children suffering from mental illnesses. Pressure and criticisms make the children more disheartened, and their mental health situation worsens. The vicious cycle has to break.

After S passed away, many of my classmates made short memorial posts on social media, including those that bullied her in middle school. S wrote in her final words that insecurity about her physical appearance contributed partially to the depression. I vividly remember witnessing my classmates announcing S’ weight and height to the whole class and calling her disgraceful nicknames. I told them to stop and that what they said about her was not true. But I had no right to stand on the moral high ground: I was one of her closest friends, but sometimes even I would feel validated from answering a question faster than her in class or scoring higher than her in an exam? Maybe it is the evolutionary instinct that prompts us to receive pleasure from making others feel small. Maybe it is the pressure of competition that pushes us to become addicted to winning, but it is ultimately a zero-sum game. One party’s gain depends on the losses of another. Not only can no one ensure that they are always the gainers, but also collectively nothing positive is created in the process.

Errāre hūmānum est. I believe that we all have flaws that we were picked on for. No one enjoys these experiences. There is no point in becoming the seemingly most perfect individual in the group, and the reason is two-fold. First of all, it is impossible to become the best in all aspects, and secondly, even if you have reached the top of the pyramid, then what? We are all on our individual paths to understanding ourselves, fulfilling our potential, and bringing meaningful ideas and creations to the world. When paths get bumpy, we are each other’s support, guidance, and powerhouse. Mental illness should not be a one-man plight. We are in this fight together. 

If you are worried about yourself or someone you know please call U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or C.A.P.S on-call number 610-328-7768

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