The neutral colors, anodyne landscape paintings, and diplomas
ranged on the windowsill make Tian Guoyan's office much like a
psychological counselor's clinic anywhere else in the world.
But this is China, where only 20 years ago, recalls Canadian
psychiatrist Michael Phillips, his local colleagues hid their work
from neighbors who feared that mental illness was infectious, and
thought that such doctors would have caught it from their patients.
Ms. Tian is pioneering a new and rapidly growing profession in
China, as ever more psychotherapists and counselors hang out their
shingles with names such as "Happiness Heaven" or "Mood Manager."
But they cannot hope to keep up with demand, they say, in a
turbulent society where a typhoon of change has torn through
ordinary people's lives.
"The faster society develops, the faster people's lives become,
and the more stressed they get," explains Che Hongsheng, dean of
Beijing Normal University's psychology faculty. "Many people feel
they are losing their balance, and balance matters a lot to
More and more of them are turning to religion for solace or
visiting counselors like Tian, a forthright and reassuring woman who
sold a successful company to train as a psychotherapist. Though
reliable figures are hard to come by, psychologists estimate that
there are some 2,000 qualified counselors working in China.
The stigma attached to all things psychological in China "is
still hanging over" the profession, she says, but it is fading. At
least it is fading for women, who make up nearly 80 percent of her
clientele. "Men here are taught to suppress their emotions, or they
lose face," Tian explains.
Chinese women have proved especially vulnerable to stress:
Chinese females between the ages of 15 and 34 have the highest
suicide rate in the world - one that is almost double the national
Among the biggest challenges, Tian's clients (paying $40 an hour
for her services, which makes them a wealthy elite in China) tell
her, is the new need to rely on oneself in a country where the state
once provided everything.
"The old meets the new, the East meets the West, and that leaves
a lot of people totally confused," says Tian. "A lot of them hold it
back, but others step forward" to seek help.
Many of them, she adds, have trouble figuring themselves out, in
a society where the individual self has traditionally been
subordinated to the collective. "You should think for your family,
your country, your group, never think for yourself," Tian explains.
"As I grew up there were tons of people telling me what to do - my
parents, my elder brothers, my teachers, the media. The focus was
never on the individual but on the benefit for the collective
That approach suited China's communist authorities just fine, and
made psychotherapy's focus on individual self-realization
counterrevolutionary. For years, psychology was condemned in China
as a decadent bourgeois indulgence and it was only reinstated as a
subject for study after Deng Xiaoping introduced his "reform and
opening" policy at the end of the 1970s.
Even so, Tian complains, the government's support for the
profession has proved "far from enough. …