The Mental Health of Women in China

By Pearson, Veronica | Hong Kong Journal of Psychiatry, August 1998 | Go to article overview
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The Mental Health of Women in China

Pearson, Veronica, Hong Kong Journal of Psychiatry


A study of Chinese health statistics demonstrates a number of very unusual features in the mental health profiles of warren e.g. that them are more completed suicides amongst women than men, and more women than mere are diagnosed with schizophrenia, although psychiatric hospital beds are disproportionately occupied by men. This article examines how the social, economic and political environment impinge, at the macro-level, or1 access to health rate and at the micro-level on the experience and interpretation of distress.

Key words: China, women, mental health, suicide, schizophrenia


The health and mental health profiles of men and woman in China show significant differences in some respects. On the face of it, women seem to do rather tuner. In line with the rest of the world where women have equal access to health and survival resources women in China outline men by over four years (World Bank, 1989). Chinese men have a fifteen percent chance of dying between the ages of 15 and 60 whereas for women it is about an 11 percent chance.

Yet viewed from a comparative perspective these figures do not present such a positive picture. Their probabilities of death place Chinese men in the middle of fifty-five countries but only eleven countries have a higher probability of death for women (World Bank, 1992). A recent World Bank/WHO collaborative study found that the years of life lived with a disability were 15 per cent lower for men in China than for women (Murray, et al., 1994). For the first time in 1993 'mental illness' was listed (at tenth place) in The China Health Year Book among the most common causes of deaths. In was there because of the suicide rate amongst women which ranks as the ninth most common cause of death among women. In cities 'mental illness' is responsible for 6.82/100,000 female deaths. 'Mental illness' does not feature in the list of the 10 leading causes of death for men.


Such differences in the health and ill-health of men and women cannot be solely explained by differences in biology. Social, political and economic factors also impinge. Mao Zedong once said that all Chinese carried three mountains on their backs, imperialism, feudalism and capitalism; but women carried a fourth mountain, male supremacy. The belief in the acceptance of male supremacy is deeply entrenched in Chinese culture (as it is in a number of others). After Liberation, the Communist Party made strenuous efforts to eliminate the conditions in which male supremacy thrived. The new Constitution that they introduced closely followed by the new Marriage Law revolutionized the legal basis of the relationship between men and women).

Like others before them, however, the Chinese government is currently faced with the realization that it is a relatively easy matter to change the law but an extraordinarily complex and lengthy business to change what people believe and how they behave. For as long as the government maintained strict centralized control of the country, they were in s position to enforce their policies of gender equality. For instance when jobs were centrally allocated enterprises had to accept women in management position. With the advent of the new economic opportunities from the mid-1980s the central government lost effective control of the provinces. By insisting that they become economically independent and responsible for themselves, the government surrendered the most effective weapon in its equality for enforcing its will. One of the cases of the government's retreat from centralized control was its gender equality policy which it was no longer in any position to enforce, although the rhetoric remained the same. Thus Room (1987) has argued that the current economic policies being pursued in China to establish a socialist market economy (capitalism in all but name) have done more to disadvantage women than at any time setae 1949.

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