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 and published part one last week. This is part two.
Depression, Anxiety, Loneliness–Where Can Young People Turn? (continued)
There’s no way out for those aching with loneliness.
Territory: The data shows that the younger generation of today has a comparatively greater proportion of people with mental health problems, and some say that, compared to people of other generations, they are less resilient. What factors have you discovered that are perhaps causing them to easily become psychologically unbalanced?
Deng Hongmei: The unstable marriages of their parents is a major reason. Parents of the 90s and 00s generations mostly married after the reform and opening period of China. Because of the upheaval of values brought about by the alteration of society during that period, divorce became common. Even if the parents haven’t divorced, they are busy with their careers, their businesses or wage labor—and overlook their family responsibilities. The emotional care for their children is really insufficient.
When students come to the counselling center, they all say they sleep poorly, or they are too emotional, or they are having problems with their studies, or relationship problems. After they have been here a few times, they begin to discuss their parents. Often, I discover that a student’s relationship with their parents is the fundamental problem. If their relationship with their parents is relatively good, even supposing they run into problems with their studies, they are not all that worried. This kind of student recovers comparatively quickly, because the love of their parents provides them with a good psychological foundation. If their parents have divorced, or passed away, or been abusive, the child’s psychological foundations are often relatively shallow, and they need particular care and attention. However, among the majority of students who come for psychological counselling, many have a problematic relationship with their parents. So when they come across problems with their studies, or interpersonal relationship problems and so on—all these different kinds of pressures—there is weakness in their mental health.
Another factor is that, as only children, their interpersonal skills are relatively weak. In the past, most children had siblings; after they got off school, they either spent time with their siblings or with their friends. Even supposing they came across some setbacks, as soon as everyone played a while, relaxed, had fun, and chatted with their friends, then their suffering could find relief. Children today have no one to talk to. They suffer alone. Many children have no outlet for their suffering; when their suffering puts a certain degree of pressure on them, they cannot bear it. Many people cannot understand why, nowadays, children so easily commit suicide—they think they are weak. But after talking deeply with these children, I can really understand them.
The expectations parents and schools as a whole have for the younger generation are quite high. This has caused the pressures on children to grow. They very easily found their worth fin their grades at school. Many children are the top student in their primary school or middle school. If, during their time at university, they are not able to push themselves academically to the front, or some other problems appear, then they don’t know who they are any more. They lose their sense of self; their mental health collapses.
Territory: in your many years of counselling, what is the thing you have felt most deeply?
Deng Hongmei: Loneliness. They are all lonely. The generations born in the 90s and 00s aren’t materially deprived, but they lack genuinely close relationships. Their parents’ marriages are unstable; they’re busy working and working and making lots and lots of noise in the world, to the point of divorce. They are completely unable to attend to their children’s feelings. Many children grow up in the midst of loneliness, with incredible difficulty. One child’s father had an affair and had another child outside the marriage. The mother also had an affair. So, the family had never gathered together to eat even a single meal. There had never been food cooked in their house. That child, from an early age, had to get up by herself, grab some pocket money to go out and buy herself breakfast, and when she’d finished eating, get on the public bus by herself to go to school. When she found us—a girl having grown up this lonely—we discovered she had developed bipolar disorder.
Many parents do not know how to enter their child’s heart, they only request that their children get good grades, attend extra classes outside school, etc. They won’t communicate with their children—the parent-child relationship is all about the external and the superficial; it is missing the internal connection with the emotions, and causing the widespread condition of children’s spirits to be lonely and dry. And the children have become accustomed to loneliness—to the point that the children do not even make any requests.
The internet has given them a place to take their loneliness to. Nowadays, a lot of children have very serious internet dependency problems. The 00s generation is more dependent on phones than the generation born after 85. They appear obedient—or numb—in the real world, but as soon as they bring up online novels, games, and so on with me, their faces glow with joy. It’s like they’ve become a different person. You can sense that the greater part of their souls are online. The internet is their refuge. There are a good many students who say to me, after they’ve been to counseling, “Teacher, no one has ever patiently listened to me speak so many words!” They are too lonely.
The price of covering up problems can be extremely distressing.
Territory: Research has revealed that “left-behind children”—children left in the countryside when their parents go to work in cities—have a high rate of criminality once they’ve grown up. Their emotions easily fluctuate, they have violent tendencies, they have an oversensitivity to perceived injustices, and other more serious problems. Moreover, their levels of extraversion, amiability, and conscientiousness are all lower than average for their communities.
Deng Hongmei: Their mental health problems really are worth taking extremely seriously. I have come across many cases of left-behind children who have reached adulthood. Apart from the things you just mentioned, the self-worth of left-behind children is quite low.
A girl who had already graduated from her doctoral program, fell into a deep depression. She told me, “I feel that I have no good points.” She was a left-behind child who had gotten into a Beijing university and had studied all the way through to a PhD—you can tell she was very intelligent and hardworking. But, from when she was little, she had never received her parents’ love; her heart was empty. She didn’t know who she was; she didn’t know her worth; and she didn’t know how to establish relationships with other people.
She told me her younger brother’s experiences as a left-behind child were even worse. Because of the lack of parental protection, it is easy for boys to get bullied at school. Her brother was bullied in primary school. She went to middle school in a different location and had no way to protect her brother. When her brother grew up, he became self-destructive and addicted to gambling. He got married very young and had two children, but had no ability to take care of his family. His wife was also a left-behind child. Their two children relied on their grandmother to look after them. The family’s finances were completely reliant on the boy’s father’s wage job and his sister who was doing her PhD. The fact that her brother is still alive, and hasn’t become a criminal, is reckoned an acceptable baseline—already a very good outcome.
Territory: During the last few decades of economic development, people have made many sacrifices; some of those costs are considerably distressing.
Deng Hongmei: Yes. Left-behind girls don’t have the protection of their parents; it is easy for them to encounter sexual abuse. A girl came to me for counseling who had been sexually assaulted as a young child. Although she was already at university, that past experience caused her enormous suffering. She was extremely suspicious of other people, and had many abnormal thoughts. When she came to find me, her depression was already extremely serious. She had secretly collected two bottles of pills in order to kill herself. I have come across a lot of children with suicidal thoughts. But as soon as even one person really cares about them, that provides them with an enormous amount of mental support.
Whether it’s depression, personality disorders, bulimia, anorexia, or other problems, we are only seeing the external symptoms—the fundamental, internal problem is this: lack of love. This is exactly what the Christian faith emphasizes: God knows that what people’s hearts need most is love. If we compare a child’s life to a tree, then the parents’ love and acceptance, and the security provided by a stable home, are like irrigation, fertilizer, and sunlight. If these things are missing, the tree’s roots will not grow properly, and the branches that grow will be weak and easily broken.
Territory: Nowadays in society, the formulation of “positive energy” is very popular. What do you make of this?
Deng Hongmei: As far as I can see, the way many people understand “positive energy” is more like a kind of mechanism for protecting mental health. They say it is used for self-protection and they selectively screen some things, or rationalize them, to suppress real suffering. For example, “If my parents beat me: I am really in pain. I can think ‘this is for my own good, because they love me,’ and turn this into ‘positive energy.’ It makes me temporarily feel a little better.” But when a person chooses to take their own pain, weakness, and lack of understanding and fully express them, “I can think on a few of the things my parents did to show they care about me. I can perhaps think, ‘my parents have really made a lot of sacrifices for me.’” It’s only at that point that our hearts can produce reconciliation, and really have active strength—i.e. real positive energy.
The people who come and sit before a counsellor are all carrying a massive burden of negative energy in their hearts—so much that they cannot bear it. When they come, willingly or unwillingly, to pour out the negative energy they’ve buried in their hearts for so many years, at that moment, if the counsellor can see a little green shoot sprouting from all the negative muck, then, there is hope.
If someone does everything they can to avoid addressing their issues, then not only will the negative energy not decrease, it will actually increase more and more. In the same way, if we avoid and cover up real-life negative news, it’s “covering our ears while stealing a bell”—we are deceiving ourselves, hiding a sickness to avoid treatment. The outcome can be severely painful.
Territory: That makes me think of “smiling depression.”
Deng Hongmei: Yes, sufferers of “smiling depression” are a classic example. The impression they give people is of positivity and optimism, friendliness and cheerfulness, and sometimes they are very humorous. In reality, they have pushed their negative energy right down into the deepest part of their hearts, using all their energy to stop anyone detecting it. In the past few years, the cases of suicide among university students have all had this feature. The students’ suicides, every time, come as an enormous surprise to their classmates who spent time with them. “How could they commit suicide? They seemed completely fine!”
One girl committed suicide like this: her roommate came back to the dormitory, and she was putting on a face pack and saying hi to people. Her roommate went back downstairs to pick up a parcel, and before she had come up again, the girl had thrown herself out of the window. Her roommate didn’t dare believe it; it seemed impossible. After some children commit suicide, their parents suffer very badly. It doesn’t make sense to them: “My child has always been just fine. How could sending them to this place have turned out this way?” But actually, the child started having problems much earlier, it’s just that they didn’t discover them.
The final part of this three part series will follow 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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