Nov 14, 2012 12:20 PM

Care, Confusion and Depression's Heavy Toll


A therapist offering treatment to a patient at a mental health center in Qingdao

(Beijing) -- China's second-most commonly diagnosed disease – depression – costs the nation an estimated 52 billion yuan every year in lost work days, medical tabs and, too often, funeral expenses.

Beijing art editor Xu Huaiqian paid the ultimate price in August when, after battling the condition for just six months while working at The People's Daily newspaper, he leaped to his death from the top of a six-story building.

Housewife Liang Xiangyang in Beijing struggled for years with an unsympathetic husband who refused to believe doctors who diagnosed her depression. Because he had power-of-attorney, the husband even denied Liang access to prescribed medication and hospital treatment until another relative arranged the help she desperately needed.

Depression also takes a toll every day on Dr. Jiang Tao, who specializes in the disease as a resident at China's top mental health facility, Beijing Anding Hospital. He's regularly overwhelmed by patients who start lining up at 6 a.m. for his services. Daily before lunch, he diagnoses about 70 sufferers.

"Many more patients are coming to see us" than in the past, Jiang told Caixin. More than half the hospital's mental health cases involve depression, he said, which in recent years replaced schizophrenia as the most common ailment at Anding's six-year-old Depression Treatment Center.

Experts say it's a nationwide medical phenomenon. Liu Jinru, mental health center director at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention recently cited "a significant increase in depression and anxiety cases."

Across China "almost 50 percent of outpatient visitors complaining of mental problems are diagnosed with depression," Liu said. "And depression sufferers make up 40 percent of all being treated as patients in mental health wards."

Since 1998, depression has stood as the second-most commonly diagnosed illness in China after heart disease, according to Michael Phillips, a suicide researcher at Shanghai Mental Health Center. Health officials say about 26 million people were struggling with at least mild depression as of last year. And many think depression-related deaths such as suicides now exceed traffic fatalities, estimated at 250,000 every year. Moreover, a 2009 survey of depression patients in six cities across China by Shanghai Mental Health Center specialist Professor Michael Phillips, whose Chinese name is Fei Lipeng, found lifelong symptoms of the disease troubling 6 percent of all those surveyed. About 1 percent of mental health patients in China struggle with schizophrenia.

Falling Behind

China's medical services cannot keep up with the growing demand. More than 88 percent of patients with mental disorders had never received professional help between 2001 and 2005, the Phillips survey found.

Due to a shortage of mental health facilities and health-care providers, according to the survey, only 45 percent of the nation's depression victims who saw mental health professionals had been treated in the previous six months. Others tried treatment programs at general hospitals or quasi-professional clinics, staffed by physicians who practice western or traditional Chinese medicine. And many get no help at all.

Clinics, some staffed by loosely trained caregivers, take advantage of those who can't find or afford professional services. Outside Anding Hospital, for example, representatives of storefront clinics advertise special "cures" in hopes of luring patients into expensive but often ineffective treatment programs.

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