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Dispatch from China: Debate rages after school attacks

Dispatch from China: Debate rages after school attacks

Last week, a series of three horrifying attacks on children and teachers carried out by unemployed middle-age men rocked China. At least four children died last week, after eight children had died in an earlier school attack in March. Violent crime is not common in China, and in each of these cases, the circumstances were especially unusual and wrenching. The New Yorker‘s Evan Osnos has a good summation.

There’s ongoing debate about the causes of the attacks, and I wanted to weigh in. Anyone — in any country — who attacks children is mentally disturbed. Other factors specific to modern China — vastly changing economic circumstances, anxiety about the future, the one-child policy — may be important as context for understanding what has made certain individuals so deeply unsettled. But the root issue here is mental health.

Mental illness is still a largely taboo topic in China. It is, firstly, poorly understood. The remnants of China’s vast state-run health-care system, which is now in the process of overhaul, made few provisions for mental health. Mental health was in essence treated as catchall category for activities considered socially deviant in China (until 2001, homosexuality was included on the government’s official list of mental illnesses). Mentally disturbed individuals are still considered an embarrassment to their families, and secrecy is preferred over therapy. This is a terrible and looming problem for a country experiencing such profound changes, which strain interpersonal bonds and individual psyches.

There’s no question that the attacks last week were a tragedy. A lot of factors were at work, and the commentary will continue. But there’s no question that China would do well to open up about mental health, for the sake of the greater good.