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December 30, 2011

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Ex-judge battles depression and helps others see the bright side

FORMER judge Luo Weiping suffered severe bouts of depression that he attributes partly to ruling on many appalling cases of corruption. At times he was suicidal and for years he was incapacitated with a widespread illness that many Chinese still fear and refuse to recognize.

Today Luo is a mental health advocate and licensed psychologist who says he has prevented at least six suicides and shown people what he learned the hard way: that life is precious and worth living. He travels around the country, giving talks about the need to recognize and treat depression and helping people along the way.

Luo gives psychology classes at Tongji University, Shanghai International Studies University, Jiao Tong University and some other schools. He doesn't run a hot line, but many people seek him out.

The former Chief Judge of the Huangpu District People's Court also gives informal talks about China's legal system and the rule of law, which he says is gradually improving. He was forced to retire at age 50 because of his depression.

"In the next 20 to 30 years, the courts will have a great chance to gain independence," 60-year-old Luo said in an interview with Shanghai Daily, adding that he hoped he would be alive to witness that transformation.

Luo is a kind of relic of China's early legal system and he provides insights into how one court worked.

The Heilongjiang Province native is one of China's early judges who never went beyond middle school and never went to law school; he went to law school at night and studied fiercely, but still found it hard going, especially since he handled cases involving economic crime, disputes and intellectual property issues.

Today he is a living example of how depression can be treated and cured. In addition to promoting mental health awareness, he is a volunteer, taking part in many social activities and spending time with terminal cancer patients.


One day in 1995, Luo collapsed in his chambers. When he came to, he was hospitalized, but doctors found nothing physically wrong. Finally, a psychiatrist diagnosed depression. Luo had been working hard, suffering insomnia and worrying a lot about whether he was rendering just verdicts. It was stressful.

"I could not believe that I was ill and had depression," Luo recalled.

At that time, around 15 years ago, most Chinese thought depression was insanity and those who were depressed were stigmatized. Treatment was rare. Luo himself, who was concerned about saving face, was ashamed and dared not tell anyone about his depression. The situation is somewhat better today, but misunderstanding persists.

Fortunately, he felt better soon and was back on the bench in six months, hearing difficult cases that only got more perplexing. His anxieties mounted.

"I worried about the country's legal system and economic development after witnessing the dark side of society and many cases of corruption and embezzlement," he said.

"It was painful to see the erosion of large amounts of state assets and I wanted to figure out a way to stop it, so I kept thinking, thinking, thinking and couldn't fall asleep," he said. After a sleepless night, he would again grapple with economic crimes and there seemed no end. He believed his depression was caused by the combination of fatigue, constant work and the need to adjudicate difficult cases under pressure. Some economic cases were so complicated he could not understand them and sometimes there was government intervention.

In China there is no jury system and most cases are decided by three-judge panels. There is typically a presiding judge, a second judge and sometimes a citizen-judge. Most trials are closed to the public.

He added that he hopes the public will realize the difficult situation faced by judges. "And the situation will not be changed in the short term because of the incomplete legal system," he said.

The cases of economic crime kept mounting. Luo had to rule on intellectual property cases that were extremely complicated and difficult to follow. As presiding judge he had to decide. Sometimes he based his rulings on his feelings and instincts.

"I knew that was not right, but I had no choice," Luo said.

Five years after returning to the bench, Luo made a serious error in ruling and both plaintiff and defendant appealed his findings and verdict. The verdict was overturned by a higher intermediate court on appeal - extremely rare because of the personal relationships among judges. A mistake usually has to be egregious before it's overturned, Luo said.

When higher court judges told Luo they had to overturn the verdict, he said, "I could not accept the fact that I was wrong."

Stunned by his error, he had a relapse and fell into depression once again, this one more severe and lasting for five years. He was forced to retire.

"My whole life was gray at that time," he said. He barely communicated with anyone.

Because of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), Luo did not finish middle school and like many of his peers went to work in rural areas. He met his wife, who came from Shanghai, and they married. She was able to return to the city but he remained in the countryside for several more years. In 1987, he was transferred to the Huangpu District People's Court. He went to night school and studied hard.

At that time many judges of his age and background did not attend law school. "That's one reason we had so many unjust verdicts, but that was an error of the era," Luo said.

He estimates that in his day, a period of 10 to 20 years, three or four verdicts out of 10 were unjust. The situation is much better, maybe one to 1.5 for every 10 cases, he estimates.

"Sometimes when I sat on the bench, listening to arguments between the attorneys, I could not follow them or even understand what the case was really about," he said, "but I still had to decide."

Luo was not computer-literate, so when the court began to digitalize paperwork in the late 1990s, he was not familiar with the process. Well-trained lawyers from abroad also confused him.

"It was torture for me," he said.

Second time

This time his depression was completely debilitating.

For five years, Luo was prescribed various medication of various kinds, including anti-depressants, and frequently visited doctors, though he was not hospitalized. He no longer takes medication.

When he first went to see a doctor at the Shanghai Mental Health Center in 1995, he was shocked and frightened. It seemed like a prison with a black and white sign. While he spoke to a doctor, there was no privacy; he was frightened by the schizophrenic and other patients nearby who were screaming and acting out. Their presence made him feel even worse.

"It made me feel bad and I was terrified by all those disturbed people around me," he said.

Today the situation and facilities are better. Inpatients are separated from those seeking consultations and the environment is better.

"We still lack the common sense toward the illness," Luo explained.

He said that if someone is depressed for a while and daily functioning is difficult, it is essential to visit a psychological counsellor - don't worry about what other people may say. He also said that medicine is necessary for severe cases of depression; it stabilizes people and enables them to function, to sleep and to think about and address their problems. People should not be afraid to take medication, he said.

He himself considered suicide but did not attempt it. He said he actually could not figure out an effective, practical and not-too-horrible method.

Later, when he counseled people suffering depression, he would draw on his own experience. If they wanted to end their lives, Luo would ask exactly how they would do it, and then explained why various methods wouldn't work. They would talk it out.

"My own counseling methods worked," Luo said, adding that he persuaded six young people not to take their lives and to get treatment for depression.

Out of the shadows

In 2005, Luo gradually walked out of the shadows of depression. He took psychology, sociology, biology classes and physiology courses to find out why he suffered depression. He passed exams to become a state-certified psychological counselor.

At first he wanted to become a professional psychotherapist, but that takes far more study and training and therapists adhere to a strict code that forbids non-professional association between therapist and patient. "I want to become friends with people, but therapist can't do that, so I became a counselor."

Today he remains in close contact with the six people he dissuaded from committing suicide. Luo, the six and their family members "are just like a big family," he said.

He helps anyone who comes to him and he doesn't charge.

"Support from family and society are most important in helping depressed patients," he said, referring to persistent discrimination against patients with mental illness, including depression. Many people confuse depression with insanity, many think it reflects a lack of willpower or discipline and some, mostly in rural areas, consider it a bad sign or divine punishment.

Most people today accept Luo after hearing his story, but they still shun depressed patients and people who had depression.

For this reason, when severely depressed people seek his help, he advises some of them not only to see a medical doctor for prescriptions, but also - in the case of young women - to change jobs, move to a new neighborhood and make new friends.

"It's impossible that any Chinese mother would allow her son to marry a woman with a history of depression," Luo said.

Liu's own wife does not like him talking about his depression or giving interviews.

Luo advises a number of university clubs and has an informal deal: he gives talks about psychology or law and in return, students take him on local hikes or longer trips on summer or winter vacation; sometime they do volunteer teaching and poor areas and Luo goes along.

"I take every opportunity to travel," Luo said. He has visited most provinces and autonomous regions on the mainland and next year he plans to give talks on mental health and law in universities in Shanxi Province.

He volunteers extensively, rushing to Sichuan Province to help survivors of the 8.0-magnitude earthquake in May 2008. They delivered emergency goods and he helped counsel trauma survivors. He has visited Sichuan several times.

He volunteered at the World Expo in 2010 and now makes it his special mission to visit terminal cancer patients, listening to them talk about their lives, their concerns and fears.

"After I recovered, I have come to value life more and I've regained passion for life that I can share with others," Luo said.

"I plan to carry on for at least 10 years, creating fun for others and having fun."

And as for his judgment on China's evolving legal system, Luo is confident. "With more and more law school graduates and the public's recognition of the need for a society of laws, the miscarriages of justice will be largely eliminated and the whole legal environment will be greatly improved."

In China, more than 26 million people are estimated to be depressed but around 60 percent have never seen a trained professional or doctor. Those numbers are considered low because many cases are never reported because of stigma and ostracism. Of those who commit suicide in China, 10-15 percent are depressed. Of those who attempt suicide, 50-70 percent have suffered from depression, Xinhua reported.


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