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September 21, 2011

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Helping kids communicate

A psychologist has opened a rare private office in Shanghai and she's overwhelmed by increasing cases of troubled teenagers and distressed parents. She talks to Liang Yiwen.

The start of the fall semester has become a time of anxiety for many Chinese students and for some a time of desperation. In recent years a few students have shocked the nation by taking their lives at this time of year.

Suicides and attempts by young people are on the rise around China.

This year is no exception.

A schoolgirl, age 15, jumped 18 floors to her death in Shanghai on August 31, just one day before the new semester began.

A freshman at prestigious Peking University attempted suicide by hanging himself in his dormitory on September 15. He was saved.

That day was World Suicide Prevention Day.

According to the Shanghai Education Commission, eight primary and secondary school students committed suicide in 2010, two more than in 2009. Six students killed themselves over disputes with parents and two were driven by relentless academic pressure, it said.

Suicide is the leading cause of death for teenagers and young adults (age 15 to 34) in China, a country where almost 250,000 people commit suicide and more than 2 million people attempt to kill themselves each year, according to the State Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

With the rise in suicides, education authorities are working to improve the psychological health of students.

Meanwhile, the violence on campuses nationwide, from primary schools to universities, is another reminder of the problems faced by Chinese youngsters. There has been a rise in antisocial behavior of all kinds, including bullying, threats, fighting, beating, filming beatings and uploading violent photos.

Problems are becoming so severe that many parents are sending their children to psychologists for help - and many parents could use counseling as well.

Liu Yeping, who works in the psychology clinic of Shanghai Jiao Tong University, has opened a private clinic near her home to help more people, especially minors. It's one of the city's few such office. The licensed and self-taught psychologist found her office overflowing, so she decided to charge 800 yuan (US$125) for an hour of counseling. She is still fully booked and there is a waiting list.

The rapid transformation of China's economy and society have caused major stress and emotional dislocation. Many people do not know how to cope with increased, and it seems unrelenting, pressures to succeed in school and university, get a well-paying job, get a house, car, marry well and make everyone happy.

"Psychological issues are increasing among children and teens... I have met minors who wanted to kill themselves, kill their parents or kill their teacher," Liu, whose methods have stirred controversy among her colleagues, tells Shanghai Daily.

Many parents send their children to her as a last resort after counseling at city and district mental health centers as well as medication proved ineffective. Few parents want their child to take medication because they fear it may cause intellectual impairment.

"Teenagers are under pressure from study burdens, high expectations and troubled relationships with family members, boyfriends and girlfriends," says Liu, 48, who has been a practicing psychologist for 10 years.

"The core of the problem is that families and school education haven't kept pace with the changes in society."

Coping with pressure

Ye Bin, a psychologist who has worked at East China Normal University's counseling center for two years, agrees with Liu.

"Minors today have to face more pressure and challenges compared with their predecessors," he says. "But parents and teachers have failed to provide guidance to children about how to cope with this pressure."

Wang Yajuan, mother of a university student, said: "I understand that children today are suffering high pressure. But the competition is so tough for a slot in domestic colleges and the job market, they have to work hard and play less."

Jiang Jun, a psychologist at 12355 youth league service platform, says adolescents want to be treated as adults and that strict parenting will make them rebel.

Liu often counsels parents and children separately because many children's problems stem from poor family relationships and communication problems; in many cases parents don't listen to their children and really "hear" what they are saying.

"I need to help parents understand their children and fix their relationship in an effort to help the children," she says.

"Many university students have problems that originated from their childhood education.

"Elementary school only stuffs students full of information. It neglects experience. While teachers and parents only care about test scores rather than the happiness of kids."

In a recent case, a middle school boy chopped up furniture at home and threatened to kill his mother, a divorced entrepreneur.

According to Liu, the boy is very sensitive and has a poor relationship with his mom, who is often busy with work. He resents her for not spending time with him. He feels unwanted and unloved, and strikes out to get attention.

"I don't need her money," he told Liu. "I need her care."

Liu has advised the mother to take leave from work and spend time with her son. The woman and her son left for Sichuan Province to take part in an NGO program.

Most parents are desperate to help their children and are very cooperative when Liu makes suggestions.

Yet some parents do not cooperate, says Liu, who is still haunted by one failed intervention that was halted by the mother.

The parents are overseas returnees and have a teenage daughter. The man beat his wife and attempted to rape their daughter, according to the daughter.

The mother didn't want the psychologist to have an in-depth look at the family. She refused Liu's request to speak privately with the daughter and terminated counseling, the psychologist says.

"According to some foreign laws, I have committed a crime because I didn't report the case to authorities," Liu says. "But I don't know which department I should report to. In China, there's no specific law about domestic abuse."

Many women dare not tell others about family violence because of traditional thinking that one shouldn't air dirty linen in public.

Moreover, neighbors and friends seldom intervene or call the police because they believe it is none of their business.

Liu says she is now studying the law in her spare time so she can better help victims of domestic violence and abuse.

Liu says she was born to be a psychologist although she didn't realize it at first. She majored in engineering at Jiao Tong University and graduated in 1984. She says she didn't like the field and became a humanities teacher at the school. Later she became a school management official in the infrastructure construction department and then a principal of a primary school affiliated to the university before becoming a psychologist at Jiao Tong.

Liu says she started reading psychology books out of self interest and that her interest in the subject deepened after her son was born in 1987. She says she wanted to provide a better education for her son. She received her psychologist's license in 2004.

At first, she only helped relatives and, occasionally, friends. As word spread, more people introduced their friends to her, Liu says, adding that psychology was a new thing to most Chinese at the time.

Now she tries to teach SJTU students about happiness and love because she says university students in the past were happier.

"When my generation was in college, we had dreams and we were more passionate and more interested in politics.

"Today's university students don't care about others, not to mention society or the country's future," she says.

The psychologist says many university students don't love themselves, which causes trouble in all of their relationships and may eventually lead to suicide.

Her experience as a teacher and a managing official in primary school and university gives her a deep understanding of the education system.

"Domestic university education for teachers is lacking," she says. "Most of the courses are about theories and graduates have little idea of how to teach or how to tackle problems."

Moreover, she says most teachers are not very happy because they aren't interested in children or teaching. To these teachers, it's just something to do to get a paycheck.

When she tried to use a relaxed way to teach children and spark their interest in what they study, many parents, who are SJTU professors, complained that she should make more efforts to improve their test scores.

"I admire US educator John Dewey's saying 'education is life' very much," she says. "I support his practical spirit."

Liu says many Chinese parents do everything for their children to give them more time to study, which deprives them of confidence and learning how to do things on their own.

"Many children are good at solving academic questions but have a poor ability to handle real problems in daily life," she says. "So they lose their temper easily or become depressed because they don't know what to do and lose confidence in themselves."

She has developed a special method to help patients by asking them to do housework, especially cooking. "Cooking is a complete project from the process of buying vegetables to cleaning the tableware," she says. "Schools don't teach you to cook, thus students have to find out how to cook on their own, which improves their problem-solving abilities."

She has applied the housework method to students with various problems and it has proven to be very successful.

But many people don't understand her line of thinking at first.

Last year, a boy, 15, who suffered anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder whenever a minor problem occurred stopped counseling after the psychologist asked him to mop the floor. Liu says he thought the idea was "ridiculous."

Two months later, he returned for help again as his problem became worse. He fell into a deep depression.

This time the boy's mother agreed to the cooking method. A year later, the boy's attitude improved greatly and he was more understanding of his mother, Liu says.

In the meantime, he started to study on his own when no one forced him to go to school. Moreover, he has learned how to care for others and, for the first time, has a girlfriend.

The psychologist says he asked his mother to let him cook the traditional family reunion diner for the Spring Festival. His mom was so happy about his progress that she cried.

"I never worry about students who have mediocre grades and are scolded by teachers and parents for having girlfriends or boyfriends or being naughty in class," Liu says.

"But I worry about excellent students who achieve top scores and have never had any setbacks or had a boyfriend or girlfriend," she says.

The Shanghai Education Commission issued a notice on Monday, urging schools to guarantee one-hour of sports activities on campus every day.

In August, the commission shut down English test centers in three kindergartens to protect pre-school children. The commission also put forward regulations to ban schools from accepting resumes from students to avoid fierce competition for enrollment.

Moreover, the commission started issuing reports on student deaths and injuries to the public annually in 2009 to remind the public to care for society's young people.

"Families, schools and the whole society should work to create a relaxed environment for students," said Yang Yongming, a commission official in charge of student safety.


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