Finding value in the local and the traditional amidst China's mental health epidemic

November 20, 2019

With globalization, Western biomedicine has come to China.

The country's economic restructuring and privatization have created a mental health epidemic. The government sees psychiatric hospital care as a cost-effective, and even profitable, solution to the mental health crisis. While mental health care is available in larger urban centres, the best and least stigmatized care is only accessible to the elite. Smaller and rural communities often lack access to mental health care services and professionals. For these communities, alternative, communal, and traditional methods of mental health care are used in response to the crisis—methods that are increasingly marginalized.

Jie Yang, professor of anthropology, has organized a workshop in response to the mental health epidemic in China. Her workshop will look at local and traditional methods of mental health care, "indigenous" psychology (IP) practices.

Chinese IP practices are drawn from Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, Chinese divination, and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), as well as methods from ethnic minorities and can include practices such as Tai Chi and calligraphy. Unfortunately, the adoption of Western psychological practices has led to the marginalization of these Chinese IP practices. 

Yang is concerned with the marginalization of these practices and the people who use them. She notes that these approaches can be effective as they are appropriate to local contexts, issues and value systems. She points to the Chinese practice of self-cultivation, which focuses on embodied and holistic approaches to well-being, and how it can be resources of healing and area of study. Yang worries that delegitimizing these practices increases the vulnerability of the people who engage them. She believes that IP practices should be seen as resources and hopes that they can be revitalized and legitimized. 

Hybridization practices combining Western and IP methods are beginning to appear. An example can be seen in the development of TCM Psychoanalysis which draws from both traditional Chinese techniques and Freudian theories. As well, WeChat has provided a platform for mental health treatments, offering spaces for raising the consciousness of mental health issues and also a place to promote psychotherapeutic services. Yang's workshop will discuss these topics and more, creating a greater understanding of mental health in China

Jie Yang has invited scholars from China, Europe, and those coming for the CASCA/AAA Conference to discuss the state of alternative and traditional Chinese mental health practices and its practitioners at the local level.

The keynote speakers in her workshop include Dr. Louise Sundararajan, founder of the Task Force on Indigenous Psychology, and Dr. Laurence Kirmayer, McGill University.