BEIJING - China's health authorities are taking urgent steps to address the growing risks of leaving severe mental patients untreated following a spate of violent assaults in recent months.
Vice-Minister of Health Yin Li said the ministry is planning to renovate or expand 550 psychiatric hospitals and departments across the country in two years.
Other measures include establishing a registration system and free mental health counseling hotlines for patients, improving access to mental health services particularly at the grassroots level, and seeking to provide free treatment for those whose condition is serious, Yin said.
"To help ensure social security, the ministry will work closely to ensure that the needy, especially those with serious conditions, get timely and quality treatment," he said at a meeting on public security on Sunday.
In an age of social transformation under the impact of mounting pressure and a fast paced lifestyle, rising mental disorders in China have gradually become an urgent issue, he said.
Currently, more than 100 million Chinese suffer from various mental illnesses, including 18 million serious patients, according to official estimates.
Due to the social stigma attached to mental illnesses, limited access to care and economic constraints, a majority of them have never received any medical aid, experts warned.
In China, for every 100,000 people, there are about 1.26 qualified psychiatrists, far lower than the global average of four, said Professor Tian Chenghua of the Institute for Psychiatric Research at Peking University's No 6 Hospital.
Worse, few hospitals at the county level have mental health departments, he said.
"That adds pressure for social security and stability maintenance as well," said Qiu Renzong, a bioethics researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
The government has swung into action following a spate of fatal attacks in recent months committed by those suspected of being mentally ill.
About 82 percent of the 1,515 people who were accused of criminal offenses and underwent psychiatric evaluation at a Beijing hospital from 1984 to 1996 suffered from mental illnesses, Xinhua reported on Monday.
In response, the ministry launched a nationwide mental health program in February, requesting each province to set up at least one psychological counseling helpline by the end of the year.
"By now, 24 such call centers are in operation nationwide," Yin said.
A hotline is a feasible and cost-effective method to offer mental health services in a relatively private way, said Qiu.
Meanwhile, a large-scale mental health-screening program has been launched in many parts of the country to improve service to locals suffering serious mental disorders, with the aim of ensuring public safety.
To be exact, it aims to pick out patients with a history of violence, Tian said.
"These long awaited initiatives, which have come after a spate of violence, should be maintained in the future," Tian said.
Tian, a veteran psychiatrist, said he has been seeing an increasing number of patients coming to him for help, despite widespread discrimination against the mentally ill.
Ten years ago, our department received on average 300 patients a day, which has risen to more than 700 now, he said.
"Most of the patients we receive now are suffering from depression, while it was mainly schizophrenia in the 1990s," he said.
Both schizophrenia and depression fall in the category of serious mental diseases, experts said.
So far, China has twice carried out epidemiology surveys on mental diseases, once in 1982 and again in 1993.
"Results from the two surveys didn't vary much, except for alcohol dependence, which had seen a sharp rise," Tian said.
The Ministry of Health has long been mulling a third survey but never launched it due to technical problems, he said.