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Coco Lee: Death of Pop Icon Sparks Mental Health Discussion in China

Pop singer Coco Lee’s death has shocked the Chinese-speaking world, and sparked discussions of mental health issues on China’s social media.

Lee passed away after being in a coma since attempting to take her own life on the weekend, according to a Facebook post from her older sisters Carol and Nancy. She was 48.

They also disclosed that she had been suffering from depression in recent years.

A household name in China, the Hong-Kong born American singer was remembered for her electrifying energy and megawatt smile on stage and in front of the public. And many people were in disbelief after the news broke late at night on Wednesday.

“I can’t believe this. She was always the sunshine girl who loved to sing, dance and smile,” a comment liked by more than 3,000 times on the country’s Twitter-like platform Weibo reads.

“Is there still any happy person in this world then?” said another top-liked comment.

As tributes poured in, many focused on the mental health issue her family had mentioned.

Hashtags such as “how close depression is near you”, “symptoms of depression” have been trending on different online platforms, state media outlets like CCTV, People’s Daily and China Daily have put out content to raise people’s awareness of depression and mental illness.

“People can feel this has apparently become a more and more pressing matter,” says Dr Jia Miao, assistant professor of sociology at Shanghai New York University.

It is symptomatic of an alarming situation facing China: a rapidly growing number of people suffering from mental health issues, and a medical network not yet fully ready to cope.

Depression, or any mental illness, has long carried stigma in Chinese society. The Chinese word for mental illness, ‘jingshen bing’ sounds similar to a derogatory term for a mad person, ‘shenjing bing’, and people who have mental health issues would always be seen as someone out of their minds.

Chinese patients were largely underdiagnosed, according to Ke Ren, founder of social media account “Depression Research Institute”.

“We would hear things like ‘someone didn’t get a good grade at school so they jumped off the building’,”says Ms Ren. “But we never got a chance to ask those people ‘what happened?’, and what kind of help they needed.”

Over the last 10 to 15 years, as China’s economy quickly advanced, pressure on individuals have increased.

Chinese people have been burnt out as competitions at school and in the workplace have become more fierce, and mental health issues have gained attention from society, said Dr Miao from Shanghai New York University.

“As more people found themselves suffering from these issues, they became more willing to share their experiences with their family and friends, and seek professional help, and that changed the attitude towards this topic,” she added.

Numbers show that China’s depressed population has risen sharply. According to China Mental Health Survey which was released in 2019, one in every seven Chinese residents would suffer from at least one type of mental illness in their lifetime.

Even people who are widely seen as successful began to share their experiences.

In an article published in 2015, Ren Zhengfei, founder of tech giant Huawei, revealed he had once suffered from severe depression and anxiety. Zhang Chaoyang, founder of tech company Sohu, has addressed his past experience of depression several times openly.

The pandemic and China’s extremely strict “zero-Covid” policy have also taken a toll on people.

“Mental health issues occurred during the pandemic. [Trouble with] people’s income, trouble to find a job – people’s anxiety has always been there, and is even increasing,” Dr Miao said.

Earlier this year, the death of four young people by suicide at a famous tourist attraction in Hunan province sparked fierce discussion about mental health and social pressure in China.

The Chinese government has been trying to tackle this.

Dr Miao explained schools and universities are now required to have mental health consultants, and in big cities community units have designated people to look after elderly people’s mental health.

But one of the most pressing matters is that there are not enough qualified professionals. There were only 64,000 psychiatrists in China by the end of 2021, according to state media China Youth Daily.

“Compare to the fast pace of social awareness, the country has a long way to go on diagnose and treatment in terms of mental health illnesses,” added Dr Miao.

Source : BBC