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March 20, 2010

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Psychologist helps with bad grades, insomnia and puppy love

ZOU Yuwen has been teaching political science in high school for 20 years in Yangpu District but finds that with psychology she can also help students with their personal problems.

These days Zou, 42, seizes every opportunity to volunteer outside the formal classroom and help individual students. She teaches at Shanghai Shaoyun High School, but says psychology feels like destiny.

"I've been teaching politics for more than 20 years," says Zou. "But the longer I teach, the more I feel that I should find a subject that can be better adapted to each student's individual differences and needs.

In 2005, she began studying psychology and received a certificate as a psychological counsellor two years later. Since then she has been volunteering as much as she can.

She even went to Yunnan Province as part of a Shanghai teaching team and provided psychological assistance to many students at the Yunnan Diqing Minzu (ethnic) High School.

From last August to this February, she and two other teaching volunteers (Chinese and math) joined around 20 other Shanghai volunteers working in a remote village in Yunnan at a high elevation, where it was freezing cold at night in July and August. Other volunteers included doctors and agriculture experts.

In Yunnan Zou taught psychology classes and also set up a little consulting room, just 5 square meters, in what used to be storage space near her dormitory.

It was extremely popular and many young people came to discuss their questions and troubles.

"At first, they didn't know what a psychology class is," Zou says. "And they didn't imagine they could talk to me in person and that I could offer some counseling."

Zou taught four classes a week for students in grades 9 and 10; each class had 70-80 students. No one had taught psychology there before.

"The students are curious and attentive and are willing to interact with teachers and give quick feedback," she says. "They respect me and sometimes even applauded me."

After teaching classes she welcomed students to her small space that had a dark red sofa and some slogans of encouragement on the walls.

"I informed everyone I was available three times a day -- 12:30pm, 5:30pm and 7pm -- for an hour a session.

"I saw students grieving over the loss of parents, those who difficulties with their studies and those where were troubled by puppy love. I realized that my presence was very timely," she recalls.

There, Zou helped a boy who had suffered from insomnia since seventh grade. He had been treated, unsuccessfully, by both traditional Chinese medicine and Western medicine.

"But it never occurred to them to take him to see a psychologist -- of course there was none in their area," Zou says.

She found the insomnia resulted from an irregular biological clock (circadian rhythm) and that his mother also had a "clock disorder" while she was pregnant with him. He grew up and developed her bad sleeping patterns.

"After several hypnotherapy sessions, he got better," says Zou. She suggested the boy live at home instead of in the school dorm and asked the parents to keep a strict schedule of activities.

"They were very grateful after his cure," she says.

The working conditions were difficult, even in July and August. The overnight ice didn't melt until midday and there were problems getting enough water.

"Despite all the difficulties, I would beg for a chance to return and teach there again," says Zou.

After getting her psychology certification in 2007, Zou volunteered after school at nights and on weekends. She answered calls to a hotline and replied e-mails from people with emotional problems.

"In this way I learned there is a huge need for psychological services in society, especially for students," she says.

"Students need care and guidance in values and behavior, in addition to regular school learning," says Zou. "A psychological counselor can give them essential care and guidance that will help them in their studies and future life."

Opportunity arrived when the high school's young psychology teacher got pregnant and took maternity leave. Zou took over her classes until the new mother returned and Zou went back to political science.

In her psychology classes she studied why some students dozed in class but were instantly alert when the bell rang; why some have no interest in studies or drive to work harder; why some get into mischief or trouble, and why some have bad interpersonal relations.

"When psychology teacher returned, I continued with political science but also hoped to find other ways to help kids," she says.

She wanted to be a volunteer counsellor to help survivors of the Sichuan earthquake in May 2008, but there was no opening. Last year she was able to go to Yunnan to help students.

In 2003 Zou moved to Shanghai from Zhengzhou, Henan Province.

"It is thanks to Shanghai, which has more opportunities, that I can further my goal of volunteering," Zou says.


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