Return to 'Shanghai Tulip' – the struggle of China's mental illness sufferers

by Shanshan Chen | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 22 July 2016 14:30 GMT

The Oriental Pearl TV Tower is seen in the background as people walk along the bund by the Huangpu River, during the Chinese New Year Holidays, in Shanghai February 20, 2015. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

China’s first support group for people with mental illness limps on, with its founder in retreat

A little over a year after I made the short documentary Shanghai Tulip - breaking China’s mental health taboo, I revisited Shanghai and met up with some of the characters in the film.


The film is about Tulip, the first non-governmental organization (NGO) of its kind in China that arranges peer support groups for people with depression and bipolar disorders, and aims to break down the stigma surrounding mental illness.


The central character is Chen Wei, the founder of Tulip. Chen was a successful businessman until he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2003. He found few places to turn to for mental health support in his home city of Shanghai. And he discovered he wasn’t alone in his struggle: China faces a massive mental health crisis, including more than 200,000 depression-related suicides each year, according to China Association for Mental Health.


Those suffering from mental health disorders are often treated as outcasts, receiving little support from friends and family, and find it hard to find work. To raise awareness and provide support to those in need, Chen founded Tulip.


It was a difficult move and his parents worried about his future. The non-profit sector in China is monitored by the state and funding is often hard to come by. Chen, who used to have a well-paid job, was relying on his savings.


But the needs are great: some six percent of China’s population of nearly 1.4 billion people suffer from depression. In 2014, Tulip was officially registered as an NGO with little external support, and the following year a Beijing-based foundation provided Tulip with some one-off funding.


On my return to Shanghai, I went to a café near where I first met Chen and showed my film to the group. They watched intently, laughing shyly when they saw themselves on screen.  


I have been in touch with most of them on Wechat – but Chen had been the only one not to reply to my messages. I asked them if they had heard from him.


Dingding, who is closest to Chen, said Chen had called him just once in the last few months. “He said he’s sorry about everything and didn’t have the courage to leave his flat. When you’re depressed, you feel sorry about everything even if it’s not your fault,” said Dingding.


In May 2015, Chen handed over the management of Tulip and retreated from the world. The funding came to an end and Tulip ran into problems. “The new manager doesn’t want anyone who’s not a patient involved, apart from their families. Our circle is already small. We want to meet new people,” said Dingding. He added: “Everyone wants something different from Tulip. Maybe that’s why it ran into problems.”


Others in the group are more optimistic. “Tulip may be gone someday, but people with depression are here. We will have new organisations, new platforms,” said Dino. He started a new job three months ago and was beaming with confidence.


Dino had been interviewed anonymously for my film. But afterwards, he participated in TV programmes and spoke about mental illness without shying away from the camera.


At the café, the discussion around Chen continued, about his refusal to take medication and his warmth that attracted so many people to join the group.  


It reminded me what happened last year when I filmed Chen on the street. An middle-aged woman saw my camera and stopped to ask what we were doing. When Chen said we were making a film about depression and offered her a booklet, the lady showed great interest. Passers-by surrounded us and started to ask all sorts of questions. Their questions were so to the point that I could tell were not just asked out of curiosity.


If I hadn’t been there with Chen and the camera, what were the chances that I would meet a person with depression or their family on the street willing to talk openly about mental illness?  


After the gathering, a summer storm broke over Shanghai. Looking at the darkening sky, I wondered what Chen was doing at that moment. He had founded and supported Tulip with tenacity and courage. He gave so many others the strength to speak out against the taboos surrounding mental illness in China, and encouraged those who were suffering to support each other.

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