By Malcolm Moore in Shanghai
Last Updated: 11:05AM BST 28 Apr 2009
"This is a modest number," said Huang Yueqin, the director of the National Centre for Mental Health.
Her department was set up by the Health ministry in 2002 to draft policies to combat the growing problem of Chinese mental illness.
Mental illness has now overtaken heart disease and cancer as the biggest burden on the Chinese health system, according to the World Health Organisation, affecting seven per cent of the population.
The definition of mental illness is broad, and a large proportion of Chinese suffer from relatively minor conditions such as anxiety, depression, drug addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorder. However, Dr Huang estimated that only five per cent of sufferers are aware of their condition and try to seek treatment.
The Chinese government has only recently recognised the scale of the problem. "The government did not pay much attention to the public's mental health over the past 50 years, and did not invest much in treatment or care," said Dr Huang.
"However, the current five-year plan (for 2007-2012) has included mental illness treatment as a major field of research, which is a big step forward," she added.
Beijing will build six new mental health clinics in order to treat the 150,000 people who are estimated to suffer from mental illness in the city. Currently there are only 6,900 psychiatric beds available. Deng Xiaohong, a spokesman for the Health ministry, said large hospitals across China will soon be able to offer psychiatric care and counselling.
However, Dr Huang said China suffers from a serious lack of qualified psychiatrists, since the profession was outlawed during the Cultural Revolution. From the late 1960s, Maoist thought attributed any mental illness to an incorrect appreciation of the class struggle. Many mentally-ill patients were taken from hospitals and sent to labour camps because of their "counterrevolutionary" behaviour.
There are only 4,000 qualified psychiatrists and a further 15,000 doctors working in psychiatric hospitals to serve China's vast population. "There are no psychiatry, psychology or psychotherapy students in medical school. You need to qualify as a doctor first, and then subscribe to a course in mental treatment," she said.
As a result, she said the true number of mentally ill could be far higher. "My own estimate is that one-third of the students I was at university with now have some form of mental illness," she said.
However, she was quick to deny a link between China's growing wealth, and income inequality, and its mental health issues. "As a society develops, it is only natural for government and people to pay more attention to the mental health, but it is not necessarily related to our rising social problems. People nowadays are less crazy than they were during the Cultural Revolution, that's for sure. People are definitely happier now than in that special period," she said.
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