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Counseling in China—More “Same Same, but Different”

In the wake of COVID-19, what is the counseling situation like in China? As I mentioned in my previous blog, it’s another case of “same same—but different.”

Indeed this is a question I’ve been asked from time to time and one that’s come up recently in ChinaSource discussions that I’ve been part of. I have been seeking answers and a better understanding of the situation through conversations with local counselors, pastors, and leaders as well as friends who are long-time expat workers in China. Needless to say I have had some pretty interesting conversations.

Although Biblical, or Christian, counseling is available in China, in many ways it is still seen as an imported or western tool. Some Christians, especially in more rural settings, are suspicious of counseling in general.

One Chinese friend told me a couple of weeks ago, “you will never fully understand this. Although in some ways you are yellow inside and white outside—and you really do love our country and our people—yet there are some things you will never really understand.”

He continued:

It is not just about me and my situation. I am part of something bigger. My family and my ancestors. What I do in life affects them deeply. If I fail or have a problem it causes shame to the whole family, especially to my parents. But not only to them, but how will my ancestors react? What will be stirred up?

He explained that all Chinese people carry responsibility for their families and ancestors on their shoulders.

For Christians who have parents who are not believers but Buddhists this is a big responsibility. If my son struggles not only will it bring shame to his grandparents, anything that goes badly in our family such as lost crops, too much or too little rain, accidents, or illness will be our fault. Some also worry that if you are going to a counselor you will upset the gods and who knows what else you will set off.

Fear culture is very real even among many believers. They are not concerned for themselves, they no longer believe in it, but that culture runs deep affecting everything they do and for those with non-believing parents and relatives it produces great pressure.

Another young Christian man touched on the same topic when he shared with me that his choice to serve the Lord full time was already drawing shame on his parents. He is an only child and his parents have invested everything they had in him making sure that he got a good education. That will also ensure that he will be able to care for and provide for them when they get older. For them to have a son who works fulltime in ministry for a God he believes in yet barely having enough money is already shameful enough; to acknowledge that he struggles emotionally and needs counseling would only make things worse.

As I talked with a Chinese Christian counselor the other day and he shared about the increased need for counselling due to COVID-19 he said:

 I am embarrassed to tell you this and I understand that it may be a little shocking to you as a Westerner, but these problems [due to Covid-19] I am sharing with you are also seen in our Christian community. The Christian brothers and sisters in our country also have many emotional problems and struggles. Sorry . . .

I let him finish his sentence, while I thought about how I would break it to him that Westerners have problems too. I gathered strength and carefully told him:

I want you to know that it is not only your people who have emotional struggles. My husband and I have been sent to serve God and the peoples of Asia for more than 25 years and we still have issues and struggles. Yes, there are circumstances which may make life more challenging in certain countries and places, but in the end we are all people. We are human beings with emotions. That is the way we have been created!

At first I heard silence. Then I sensed a slight feeling of relief which led to a warm conversation about the basic needs of people no matter who or where they are.

So what is available in terms of counseling in China?

As always we need to remind ourselves that China is an enormous country and what you hear may be true, but not always true for every place. The same goes for counseling availability in China.

Though many churches don’t have formal counseling ministries, there are some churches that have informal peer-to-peer counseling. I have also heard of places where training in counseling is offered for pastors and elders, though that is still a fairly new thing.

In both the registered and the unregistered church there are often other kinds of support systems. During COVID-19 the needs have increased several levels, especially in regards to anger and unhealthy family situations. Some churches have set up support groups that are available on WeChat.

Increasingly the government is making counseling a priority within the medical and educational systems. Many of the bigger city hospitals are offering various kinds of counseling. During COVID-19 it’s been reported that hospitals have been busy providing counseling to families, teens, and children.

One Christian counselor told me that many of the counselors in the hospitals are Christians, although she feels that some may rely a little too much on their psychology studies, rather than the Bible or Christian counseling values.

Yet, just like during SARS and the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, believers are playing an important role in serving the community practically as well as in trauma and emotional counseling.

What can Chinese do if they are suffering from mental health issues?

  • For Christians, depending on their church situation, contacting the pastor or elder is often the place to start. If there is a support group or counseling ministry, contact them directly.
  • Some of the recommended and popular Christian services are: Family Life Training, Hope for the Heart, and the Agape Centre in Beijing.
  • Search on WeChat. Several counselors are offering their services there.
  • Contact the local hospital and their counseling services.

Finally, if you have a friend who is in need of care, remember that the most important thing is to love and care for your friend, making sure that he or she feels safe. As sisters and brothers we should help carry each other’s burdens and we are to cry with those who cry and laugh with those who laugh.

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Lisa (pseudonym) has lived in Asia since 1995, serving China and working in the area of member care. She moved with her family to be a light among the people God had put on their hearts. After more than ten years the dream suddenly came to a halt and they …View Full Bio

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