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Psychological barriers: Students under pressure
(China Today)
Updated: 2004-06-01 10:00

Ma Jiajue, 23, comes from an impoverished rural family in a remote village in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Enrolled at the renowned Yunnan University, Ma found himself unable to cope with a study environment.

He had anger issues stemming from shame about his family's poverty and made few friends. In February, after an altercation with his classmates, Ma bludgeoned four of them to death with a hammer. This incident shocked the entire nation. Many asked what's wrong with our children?

Adjustment Periods

College students, known in Chinese as "God's favored ones," live an exciting life and get relatively well-paid jobs upon graduation. Campus suicides, violence and the recent massacre of four Yunnan University students, however, have made student mental health an urgent issue. One freshman, who requested anonymity told of the problems he had adjusting to the college environment. Naturally shy, the trouble he experienced keeping up with other students magnified his introversion. "An underlying sense of inferiority makes me feel ignorant," he says. "I can't behave naturally around my classmates, and as time has gone on, I've become isolated. The Yunnan serial killing makes me recognize my problems, and I'm afraid that one day I will also lose control."

Currently, psychological problems abound on college campuses. A 2001 report on Beijing University Student Mental Health showed that 16.51 percent of Beijing's college students have serious problems. The majority is from rural areas. Data were collected between late 1997 and early 1998, and psychologists estimate that the current ratio is as high as 30 percent. This means nearly one third of China's 23 million college students have serious psychological problems. According to Shi Gang, a psychology professor at China Agricultural University, each year has its own psychological problems. Freshmen have trouble adapting to the new study environment and with interpersonal relations. After scholarships are issued at the end of the first semester to students who get the required scores, many sophomores find the pressure intolerable. Another problem is that sexual psychology lags far behind physiological maturity. Senior's main concern is finding a good job. "Most of these problems are the inevitable outcome of growing up, but if handled inappropriately, can lead to tragedy," says Shi.

Behind the Issues

Old Liu's son is a university senior. He is addicted to online games and has no interest in socializing. "We did not have such problems, why do they have so many?" Liu asks. At the Eastern Psychological Counseling Center, doctor Dong Lijun told Old Liu that psychological problems existed when Old Liu was a youth, but with China's revitalized economy, mental health has been neglected in the pursuit of materialism. "Social development has brought about many problems," Dong says. "An accelerated pace of life and high employment pressure make college students more susceptible to maladjustment."

There are many reasons other than social changes for the upsurge of psychological problems. "Under the current education system, college students encounter few setbacks, so lack the ability to adapt," says Shi. Family environment also plays a key role in a child's psychological development. Beijing University doctor Fang believes that an unhealthy family environment has an adverse effect on health issues. "A large percentage of students with psychological problems are from dysfunctional families," Fang says. "They lack the ability to handle interpersonal relationships and can't cope with pressure. For rural students, a sense of inferiority due to their parents' impoverished status is the biggest problem." In their efforts to attract as many students as possible, schools pay little attention to students' mental health.

Support Systems

Psychological issues are rarely taken seriously in China. People with psychological problems are viewed as "madmen," so most are reluctant to seek help, often preferring to go to temples for spiritual solace. Psychological consultation is relatively rare in China, and though college students are generally open-minded, when such problems occur, they don't go to psychologists. "I prefer to share my problems with close friends," says Beijing Institute of Technology student Wang Hao. "I believe I can resolve them by myself rather than by seeing a shrink."

As society advances, so do outlooks. "Students' attitudes have changed a lot," says Zhao, a psychological consultant at the Central University of Finance and Economics. "When consultations began, nobody came, but now they are very popular. Students come here seeking advice on things like study skills and emotional problems. This is the result of social change."

To address this problem, 70 percent of Beijing-based colleges and universities have established psychological consultation centers to provide students with access to professionals with whom they can discuss their conflicts and issues. But mental health education has not been systematic. According to the report on Beijing University Student Psychological Mental Health, half of these centers have no fixed funds and most are under the Student Affairs Office. Some universities do not have a single consultation room, let alone auxiliary equipment. A psychological consultant at a Beijing-based university said most centers were established at the request of the Ministry of Education and that consultants have no formal training. Doctor Dong at the Eastern Psychological Counseling Center said: "The function of campus consultants is to make a basic assessment of problems, and transfer students with serious problems to professional organizations. The pity is that they are not qualified to do more, as in some cases, it would be much easier to help those in distress if their problems were treated earlier."

Professional psychologists hold that campus psychological health education is seriously lacking because of a lack of professional staff. The ratio of students to psychological consultants at most universities is 10,000 to one, far from enough to deal with the increasing number of students with psychological problems.

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