It’s no big news that men cannot easily cope with what is unknown to them. History has repeatedly shown us how diversity is often matched with hostility or worse, indifference. Sadly, this is still the case of mentally ill people in China: “The Invisible”. In the most populous country on earth, with 1.3 billion people inside its borders, more than 100 million cases of mental illness have been diagnosed among the population according to a 2009 report by China’s National Centre for Mental Health. Only 20% out of this number has been given assistance.
When it comes to mental illness, every society has seen its difficulties to deal with it. Often labelled as “dangerous” or “crazy subjects”, these patients have faced long periods of suffering and trouble in the past. It was only when society and medicine made progress, that these people have been finally recognised as victims in need of special assistance rather than criminals that have to be incarcerated. With time, asylums have become mental hospitals, the word “crazy” has been substituted by “mentally unstable” and special care towards these cases has grown parallel with the progress of medicine and psychiatry.
However, in the current People’s Republic of China, improvements are yet far to be made. The extremely inadequate services are not meeting the huge demand for assistance in the country at all. Latest estimates show that there is only one psychiatrist per 100,000 inhabitants available.
Even though the first mental institutions were introduced in the country during the 19th century, mental illness still constitutes a big taboo among the Chinese population. Due to the absence of proper health care centres, most of the mentally ill patients are left on their own and forced to live on the streets in miserable conditions. Completely ignored by the government and considered as monsters that have to be avoided by the population, mentally ill people are left with nothing but bleakness until the day of their death.
Wanted or not everyone during their life has come across someone in need of help and just ignored it.
The image of a man begging at the corner of the street is, and probably will always be, a picture people will be used to, simply assuming the fact that some people in this world are covering that role. That might be the reason why currently, in China, the idea of someone with mental disorder s covered in his own dirt, screaming on the streets and throwing things at kids doesn’t cause surprise or a shock in those walking by every day. The more they scream, the more they are ignored.
However the inevitable fate to which these unfortunates are destined, does not even remotely represent the worst case scenario to which they could be doomed. In China’s rural areas, where 99% of the poor population reside, forms of education and health care are still almost completely absent. In an environment of ignorance and lack of governmental assistance, untrained families are left to deal with the issue of being the only hope for those among their community who suffer of mental illness. It’s in such a precarious situation that the unbelievable has become truth: due to their ignorance about the problem and the consequent incapability to understand it, many families have chosen to cope with their mentally ill relatives by chaining them. Countless are the reported cases of kids, women and men who spent almost their entire life chained as animals either outside or inside their houses.
In what might appear as a medieval, brutal and cruel practice, Chinese rural people actually see in this practice an extremely reasonable solution to the problem. The unpredictability of their behaviour makes any mentally ill a dangerous subject for those around them and therefore, in the eyes of the rural population, they must be controlled and rendered as harmless as possible.
It has been only early this year that the topic has been brought up to the attention of a wider audience by the photographs of a 23 years old Chinese student. Liu Yuyang’s report “At home with mental illness” has shown the world this shocking reality that has been ignored for way too long. By moving around the southern province of Guangdong, Yuyang has been able to capture the unspeakable living conditions of these people with his camera and showed us the kind of “help” that the mentally ill receive by their families. He was able to document the story of Xiao, a father that ties his 5 years old mentally ill daughter with a rope to a wooden stick every morning before going to work, leaving her without pants so that she would not get wet when having to relieve herself. Thanks to Liu’s work, more consciousness about this issue has been brought to the public. New fundraising programs has been created and many have finally received help.
Even though there are several changes that still need to be done, mentally ill people have now been given the chance to hope for a better future. The awareness that has been raised will hopefully provide “The Invisible” with the necessary attention that they deserve and push the rest of the world to do something for them instead of keep looking the other way.
By Martina Frappa
Picture 1: melenama, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Picture 2: sanna.tugend, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0