It’s not just the risk of physical violence that troubles workers in the mental health care sector. The stress is often pervasive and ongoing, making the profession unattractive to new recruits, creating a vicious cycle where staff tend to be overworked and unappreciated.
According to a report by the World Psychiatric Association (WPA) in 2011, which outlined many of the problems with China’s mental health system, most of China’s mental health professionals are psychiatrists or psychiatric nurses, with few clinical psychologists and social workers. Licensing is carried out by the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security. It is difficult to come by concrete statistics for the number of professionals throughout the country, but in 2004, they stood at 16,103 licensed psychiatrists or registrars, and 24,793 licensed psychiatric nurses according to the WPA report, and ten years later it’s believed there are only about 20,000 licensed psychiatrists—an alarming figure for the country with the world’s largest population. Media reports of extensive violence wracking the sector are likely to have helped keep growth fairly stagnant.
The problem is compounded by the many con artists that operate substandard mental health clinics, with a representative from the Division of Clinical Psychology under the Hong Kong Psychological Society telling CNN in 2014 that many of the complaints they receive are due to unprofessional therapists with dubious credentials who often break confidentiality or worse.
Shi Wei, director at the student mental health counseling center at the Beijing University of Foreign Studies, told TWOC that working as a counselor or psychiatrist involves many risks, of both the physical and mental varieties. He said that while he hasn’t been physically hurt himself, he has seen people break down under the intense pressure of the job and that during counseling sessions, “you have to monitor the student’s emotional state at all times. I have at times felt very nervous”.
In addition, mental health workers have to deal with worries from broader society as well. Wang Wanlu, for example, may be past the “leftover woman” age of 25 in China, but she is still relatively young and attractive in a society with a surplus of men. Despite this fact, she has trouble dating. “People run away as soon as they know you work in a mental hospital,” Wang Wanlu told the paper. “All seven nurses in the hospital are women. All are around 28, but only three of them have found boyfriends.”
Such tales are far from rare. In 2013, Wang Di, a psychiatrist with Beijing’s Anding Hospital, told the Beijing News that she felt there was a stigma about her job and that people had pulled out of blind dates as soon as they learned her profession.
“Toil and Turmoil” is a story from our newest issue, “Mental Health”, coming out soon. To read the whole piece, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.