In this article, the journal Territory interviews Deng Hongmei, a Chinese Christian counselor with decades of counseling experience. Deng gives moving testimony about the current emotional plight of Chinese young people and provides penetrating analysis that is helpful to better understand the challenges that Chinese young people face today.
Because of the length, we have divided the original article into three parts. This is part one.
Depression, Anxiety, Loneliness–Where Can Young People Turn?
When the second season of “The Big Band” began to be broadcast and set the world on fire, the first band of musicians born after 1995 were called “Fools and Idiots.” One of their songs, “5:10am,” used electronic music crossed with soul to express the dejected mood that belongs to their generation. It really touched people’s hearts.
Where can young people turn?
Going along happily, always to have dreams tumble and get wounded.
Still not grown up, counting down the lies of our youth.
Half believing those oaths, dawn by dawn thinking on them; half thinking it’s only sleep-talk.
People like us, where can we turn?
Where shall I wander today? Alarm clock’s not gone off yet, don’t rush to get hurt.”
When Beijing’s second wave of coronavirus was just over, I went to a coffee shop in Wangjing to interview Teacher Deng Hongmei, who has been working in the field of psychological counseling for university students for the last 20 years. At the same time, she has also been chief counselor of a Christian psychological counseling agency. She has admitted several thousand patients with clinical depression, bipolar disorder, anorexia, and so on, and successfully dealt with many patients at risk of suicide. She has served students born from 1985 to 2000.
When I asked, “In all your many years of work, what is the thing you have felt most deeply?” Deng Hongmei muttered to herself a little. Then Deng Hongmei—born in the 1960s, always referring to those university and PhD students who come to find her as “children,”—replied, “Loneliness. They are all too lonely.” Even before she finished speaking, Teacher Deng got all choked up. Her eyes were red.
It’s fine; there are lots of us like this.
Territory: This year there have been endless reports about university students going through mental health crises. You have worked in counseling university students for many years—can you tell us how you see the situation?
Deng Hongmei: I haven’t grasped the statistical meaning of the data involved; I can only discuss what I have personally observed in the course of my work. I began to work in counseling university students in 2003. During the first few years I had fewer than ten patients each week, and at that time these few had already become seriously ill enough to need medication. In 2010, because there was a suicide at our university, the counseling center became more proactive, and invited every new student to visit us when they entered university, to help them understand psychological counseling and relieve their misapprehensions. After that, the number of people coming for counseling increased. As well as those who were seriously unwell, people with less serious symptoms also came; for example, those who had problems in their relationships with their roommates, or romantic difficulties.
At around the start of 2015, I discovered that it was not only our university’s counseling caseload that had exploded—all the university counseling centers in the whole of Beijing were experiencing the same thing. The number of people coming for counseling at our university had increased from fewer than ten per week, to tens of people coming every day, lined up all the way from morning until evening. Apart from Sundays, every day, six days a week, was fully booked. Even though this was the case, we couldn’t keep up with demand. In the last three or four years, the number of people coming for counseling has exploded still further. According to my knowledge, now, every semester, in not a few university counseling centers, after every counseling session has been fully taken up, there are still around one to two hundred students waiting to be seen. This is not just because children nowadays have a higher degree of acceptance towards psychological counseling; the number of mentally ill people has increased, and this is an incontestable fact.
Territory: You have come across students born after 1985, during the 90s and during the 00s. Are there differences in the mental health problems in students from different eras?
Deng Hongmei: In a basic sense, there are not large differences. People’s problems are all more or less the same; and the problems all stem from students in the spring of youth, who need to complete the psychological growth attached to this particular life period and develop their own goals. For example: they have left the place where they grew up and left their parents, and entered a completely unfamiliar environment—they need to learn how to establish relationships with people; they need to enter into intimate, romantic relationships; they need to get used to the different study methods used at university. At the same time, they have left their parents—which is not only a physical leaving, but even more than that it is a psychological leaving. They need to get to know themselves afresh and explore who they are. They also need to prepare for their futures—finish school, face getting a job. These changes can all precipitate crises in psychological maturity.
Having said that, I have discovered that compared to students born in the five years after 1985, the generations born in the 90s and 00s have stronger self-knowledge, especially those born in the cities of Greater China or children from middle class homes. Their demand for their parents’ respect is stronger, and they are more able to express their demands. This makes the tension between them and their parents seem greater, and makes problems appear bigger. However, personally, I believe that the younger generation having these demands is progress.
Of course, from the outside looking in, these things make younger students’ psychological problems appear in many more different manifestations. In previous years, many problems were pure depression or anxiety. Recently, apart from increasing addiction problems—for example internet addiction, gaming addiction, and addiction to pornography—there has also been the addition of bipolar disorder, bulimia, anorexia, borderline personality disorder, gender dysphoria, and so on. There are also some self-harming behaviors; students are harming their own bodies in order to relieve their psychological pain. I remember a girl saying to me as she showed me the wounds she had made cutting herself, “It’s fine, teacher. There are lots of us like this.”
Part two of this three-part article will appear next week.
Original Article: 抑郁、焦虑、孤独，年轻的人们该去哪儿？by 境界君 (WeChat ID: newjingjie)
Translated, edited and reposted with permission.
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