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Shedding light on a hidden group: Tsinghua students with mental health challenges

Updated: Jul 9, 2023


Global Business Journalism reporter

As Gong Yating stood in the subway station, waiting for the train to arrive, she was paralyzed by fear. Her destination was Beijing Anding Hospital, one of the most famous psychiatric hospitals in China. She was alone, both literally and figuratively.

As other passengers started to push and squeeze past each other to pack into the next train, Yating started to feel like she was suffocating. As she peered at others on the crowded subway car, she saw hollow eyes staring at luminous smartphone screens. The silence was oppressive. Smartphone viewing felt like a collective religious ritual. Passengers exited the train and grimly hurried to their next destination.

“They march like troops,” she said. “Keeping silent. Very depressing feeling. It makes me suffer pain physically and psychologically.”

It has been an entire year since Yating was diagnosed with depression. As an undergraduate student at Tsinghua University, she is still struggling to adapt to campus life. With resilience and a strong sense of responsibility to others in pain, she became the president of the Tsinghua University Student Association of Psychology (SAP), a group of students helping students manage their mental health.

Yating said she took the post to help other students in similar predicaments and to let them know that there was a renewed commitment to support on the Tsinghua campus.

The name of SAP’s WeChat group, she noted, is “Backbones Revitalized SAP.”

“I never dreamed there are so many patients before I was diagnosed.”

Gong Yating: "I hope I can organize that kind of activity which can reduce the feeling of anxiety and depression,."

In 2019, Yating suddenly realized she had lost the ability to laugh, even smile, for more than a week. Her spirits stayed low. Uncertainty about the future became an unbearable pain torturing her inside world.

“I felt that there was nothing else in school that could make me happy, except playing shuttlecock,” said Yating.

While realizing that her spirits were low, she was not sure she needed professional help. Once, on her way to a therapist’s office, she asked herself, “Do I really suffer from diseases?” After a pause in front of the therapist’s office, she turned around, went to a playground, and took a pacifying walk instead.

“Seemed like I was okay,” she says now.

That attitude changed during job recruitment season last year. Yating submitted her résumé to Alibaba, one of the world’s most prominent Internet companies. She was required to take a personality assessment test offered by Alibaba. As she answered the questions, terms about the ability to overcome pressure in that questionnaire struck her. She saw repeated emphasis again and again, such as: I can bear great pressure. I am very resistant to stress. I can accomplish the assignments given by leaders.

“At that moment, I felt powerless,” Yating said with a heavy sigh. “The candidates must have the capacity to deal with pressure, but I can’t. I don't know whether it means I can’t find a job in the future.”

Her emotions collapsed after the job fair. Unable to deal with negative thoughts, she knew she needed to seek psychological help.

On the way to the school hospital, she was perturbed and afraid of being told that she was suffering no disease at all.

“If I am not diagnosed having a mental disease, that means my awful life situation can only be attributed to myself,” she said. “I am not studying hard enough. I am too lazy. But if I really am suffering from some mental diseases, I can use them as scapegoats.”

As she expected, she was confirmed with depression. After being confirmed, she was amazed that there were so many patients with mental disorders around her.

“Before I was diagnosed, I never dreamed there are so many patients,” she said.

Surprisingly, she found some acquaintances, even familiar schoolmates, are facing the same situation.

The psychiatric department of Tsinghua University Hospital is often full of patients from Monday to Friday and it is very difficult to secure an appointment. While few students talk about mental disorders because of the stigma in Chinese culture, the crowded psychiatric department shows that the problem is hidden in plain sight.

“I feel mental disorders are not far from my life,” Yating said.

Gong Yating: "“To be honest, I was willing to do it, and I know I needed to do it. But I’m still afraid of it.”

Although depression is rarely discussed, it is all too common in China. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 54 million people in China suffer from depression, 4.2% of the total population.

The World Health Organization has pointed out that a quarter of Chinese college students admit to having depressive symptoms. Academic, interpersonal, romantic, family, and employment pressure may be the triggering factors of depression among college students.

Back in 2006, the Beijing Municipal Youth League Committee and the Beijing Federation of Schools released the Capital College Student Development Report, which published research data in September 2006, estimating that the prevalence of depression among college students in Beijing reached 23.66%.

“I am normal and ordinary,” Yating said, evaluating herself.

“It’s not easy for me to control my emotion.”

Last October, Yating, under the intense pressure of her capstone presentation, shed uncontrolled tears before professors.

She thought she had made a considerable effort, but felt like she was still the worst in her group. She felt helpless and hopeless. The professor asked her two questions, but she didn’t know the answers. Facing great pressure, she collapsed emotionally. Tears gushed out.

“I just felt blank and empty in my inside world,” she recalled.

Before Yating was diagnosed as a unipolar depression patient, she was always bothered by her negative evaluation of herself. Only interactions with defects could be remembered, and embarrassments hovered in her mind. These made her feel guilty, and then fall into a trap of feeling nobody likes her.

“All the thing fell into a vicious circle. That made me don't want to interact with people,” said Yating.

But after studying about depression, she recognized this guilt as a symptom of disease. Thus, she could control her mind.

Her biggest challenge remains the two triggers for her depression: employment and academics.

At the time of our interview, she had solved the employment problem. But the arduous process left her scarred. “I failed a lot of times in job interviews,” she said. “I could hardly meet any requirement.”

But the fear of research is really a torment for her nowadays. Once in this semester, she paused on her way to the laboratory for several times, feeling great pain, and took a deep breath before the next step. By doing so, she earned a little time to digest her unwillingness.

“To be honest, I was willing to do it, and I know I needed to do it,” she said. “But I’m still afraid of it.”

Yating still worries that others won't accept her disability. She never talks to colleagues and relatives about her mental situation. Her fears were borne out when her father learned of her condition, and exploded: “What's wrong with this kid's brain? It is just a joke fooling others! You are so weak, and you can’t stand the setback!”

Some colleagues, she says, treat her illness as laziness and dismiss her depression as “a bad mood.”

“But actually, I’m fighting with myself in my inner world,” she acknowledged. “It’s an internal friction of spirit. It’s not up to me.”

Gao Yating: "I can feel my recovery in all aspects."

Despite the setbacks, Yating finds many people are eager to help her. The counselor of her school accompanied her to hospital for several times. Her parents urge her to exercise more and take her medications. And her senior fellow apprentices take care of her, so Yating can get more space and time to relax.

When it comes to caring, Yating said: “That’s great. Thank God.”

Now, she is accustomed to a life of coexist with depression.

“I can feel my recovery in all aspects,” she said. “The regular medicine and psychological counseling make me feel better than ever before. The most painful stage was before confirmed.”

When the symptoms of depression emerge, she has the ability to take measures swiftly, such as chatting with friends, going outside to exercises, or even just lying down on the bed.

“Sleep is my sovereign remedy,” she said with a laugh.

This May, Yating took a journey to the southeast of China for one week, and stayed in Nanjing, Suzhou and Shanghai for two days each, alone.

She felt a wide berth opening up.

“What surprised me was that it turns out other cities don't have as much pressure as Beijing,” she noted.

She could feel the geniality and the milk of human kindness of Nanjing.

“When I came back, I thought I still have hope,” she added.

“That’s because I really want to do this well”

Yating’s story with the Tsinghua University Student Association of Psychology started as an accident.

She thought she registered for group counseling, but she became the manager and counselor. During her first years in SAP, Yating did little more than creating two posters.

“The previous SAP was totally a sham,” she complained.

When the teacher in charge asking Yating to be the next president, the backbone of SAP was just two students. Based on her own painful experience and powerful will to help others, Yating wanted to rebuild the organization and bring it stability and vibrance.

Yating’s decision was also inspired by an activity she took part in called “night talk to reduce anxiety.” All the members spoke about the things that caused them anxiety and helped each other to reduce anxiety. On that occasion, Yating was soothed by similar varies life opportunities shown by schoolmates.

“I want to be the president because I hope I can organize that kind of activity which can reduce the feeling of anxiety and depression,” Yating said.

Under the leadership of Yating, SAP has grown from five students to 200 members. Yating uses the resources of Tsinghua’s Psychological Development Center, holds lectures about how to stay in a good psychological condition, organizes activities which teach volunteers some basic knowledge to help others.

“The daily responsibilities of running SAP can be a burden for my mental condition,” Yating acknowledges, “but it helps me much more.”

Her efforts were recognized by Wang Xiqin, the chancellor of Tsinghua. He listened to three presentations by the president of SAP describing its achievements and activities. This year, SAP even received funding from Beijing Shuangqingshiji Property Management Co.

The new SAP earns many positive comments from both teachers and students. The teacher in charge praised Yating for her ambition and great efforts. And the SAP members said Yating created a safe harbor for them to relax.

“I hope SAP can be as warm as home. Everyone takes each other as their family member,” said Yating.

Her work and courage are very much appreciated. The SAP’s supervisor recently told Yating that “you show a way of resilient life beyond high GPA and abundant social activity experience.”

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