Liz Carter senior contributor

Depression in China Comes to Fore as a Suicide’s Grim Anniversary is Remembered Online

(via Bigstockphoto)

One year ago, a young college student in Nanjing named Ma Jie killed herself after a prolonged struggle with depression. Before she took her own life, she posted this on Sina Weibo, a Chinese social media site:

I have depression, so I think I’ll go ‘die die’ now. No particular reason. No one needs to care about my leaving. Bye bye!

Ma’s message was all the more chilling for its colloquial repetition of the verb “die,” a way that Chinese language refers to a quick, trivial action.

It has been a year, but her internet handle, @ZouFan, recently became a top trending term on Weibo, as netizens reposted her final goodbye in memory of her life, and to raise awareness of the dangers of depression. With over 90,000 retweets and 220,000 comments at last count, Ma Jie’s farewell has touched the hearts of many who knew her struggle, despite never knowing her.

The most prevalent comment on her message was that of the candle emoticon. Others posted a green ribbon, to call attention to the battle against depression. Wrote one, “I hope this illness does not exist in heaven.” Another took the opportunity to share his own sadness: “This past year, I’ve been very unhappy.”

While the prevalence of depression in China is low compared to more developed countries, diagnosis of the disease has increased greatly since the 80’s and 90’s, as China has grown and changed rapidly. An article in the American Journal of Psychiatry attributes seemingly low rates of the disease to different diagnostic practices and ways of dealing with the disease, including “variations in help-seeking behavior.” Yet depression is the second most commonly diagnosed disease in the country, and has become a “nationwide medical phenomenon” in recent decades.

While diagnosis and awareness of depression has increased, understanding and treatment for the disease has lagged behind. Too often, the disease is misunderstood, and thought to be a product of weakness or foreign influence. A recently published book on depression argues that laziness is to blame. Bookseller @Kuaibaoshu posted a description of one of their recently published works on Weibo:

Depression is caused by laziness: ‘Depression is one of the greatest challenges people face in modern times. It is often brought on by bad habits that flow from a lack of discipline. For example, the feeling of indulging in idleness, putting off taking out the trash, or hating one’s boring work routine. If depressed people can be a little more disciplined in their lives, I believe a great deal of depression would automatically disappear.’ From It Is Not for Happiness.

In spite of the prevalence of this bootstraps mentality in popular culture, there is a groundswell movement to find new ways to talk about and treat depression. One Weibo user commented on the excerpt from It Is Not for Happiness, “This book is obviously just moralizing discrimination. The characters for ‘depression’ contain the particle for illness, so obviously it’s not a result of laziness. Depressed people are not lazy; in fact, the standards they set for themselves are too high. What they need is professional treatment and the support of their family. This kind of book would just put more pressure on people dealing with depression and their families.”

There is far from a consensus on what depression is, and how it should be treated – in China, or anywhere else in the world – but there is a noticeable shift in dialogue about it. Increasing openness on the subject has resulted in greater acceptance of depression as a medical, rather than moral, issue. As China continues to develop and change at a breakneck pace, the role of the Internet is critical, not just because it provides a space to do business or spread information, but because it facilitates connection and discussion about how to live and adapt in such a state of flux.

Ma Jie’s story does not have a happy ending, but she lives on in the memories of many. While she died because of depression, her experience has brought the issue further into the public sphere, and shown others they are not alone in their suffering.

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Liz Carter

Liz Carter is a DC-based China-watcher and the author and translator of a number of Chinese-English textbooks available on amazon.cn. She and her cat Desmond relocated to DC from Beijing, where she studied contemporary Chinese literature at Peking University, after learning that HBO was planning to adapt Game of Thrones for television. She writes at abigenoughforest.com and tweets from @withoutdoing.
  • http://twitter.com/nochnoch Noch Noch

    Hi Liz

    Thanks for the article and bringing the issue to the forefront.However, I cannot agree that China’s depression rate is low compared to more developed countries, e.g US.

    CDC reports 1 in 10 in the US, and the Lancet Journal reports 1 in 7 in China. Of course, statistics vary, depending on which source we use. But either way, i’d argue prevalence of depression, anxiety and related issues are similar, if not higher, than developed countries.

    That though is perhaps a minor point on semantics. What is fundamental is that depression is such a taboo subject in this culture. When I first was diagnosed with clinical depression, I was so ashamed, and already I had an international upbringing…

    I hope this issue gets more attention in the future. Thank you for writing about it

    Noch Noch (Beijing)

  • http://twitter.com/Jkid4 Ndee -Jkid- Okeh

    Plenty of people who speak about depression with their peers will get the bootstraps mentality or the weakness or foreign influence garbage from their family members only for these same family members to suddenly care when the people who they love suffer from depression commit suicide.

    Depression, often severe and suicidal depression causes lazyness and apathy. Obviously the Chinese government needs to make this one of their top priorities, but they’re too busy building ghost cities.

  • China Newz

    Can see how depressed people might be labeled as lazy in China because the Chinese work ethic is so intense. What depressed people worldwide need to know is that “action is the best antidote to despair.” Keep moving. Stop thinking. Find a cause. Stay in constant motion. Learn to forget.

  • Rich

    The sad thing is, the reason they work so hard is probably also the reason they get depressed, and not only because one causes the other. They both stem from the same route: extreme family expectation and conditional love.