Published: 09:59, April 21, 2024
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Offering hope to those who feel despair
By Wang Qian

Teenagers suffering from depression given opportunity and support through an innovative program of care, Wang Qian reports.

Residents and staff from Lyuting Home enjoy the lakeside in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

The maladies or symptoms strike without warning. Possibly, at first, the problem manifests itself in an inability to sleep well. Then the dietary problems start. Feelings of inadequacy are common. Nothing seems interesting. Life's supposed vibrancy — the laughter, the humor, the challenges — seems like a cruel joke. A sudden emotional breakdown strikes, and the person may wake up crying, or play endlessly with a smartphone.

These are some of the symptoms of teenage depression, and most adolescents who have lived at Lyuting Home in Hangzhou, East China's Zhejiang province, are familiar with these symptoms, which have caused many of them to drop out of school.

"Depression is a prevalent dilemma that students increasingly face across the country. We hope to turn Lyuting into a cozy, cave-like home, for those whose body and soul are in distress, to help them recover and return to normal life," Sheng Menglu, founder of the organization, says.

"Our basic rule is simple: No violence, no judgment, and respect for diversity," the 31-year-old woman says, adding that under the rules, everyone's feelings, behavior and ideas are welcomed, and there are no taboo subjects.

A recent survey showed that more than 70 percent of the adolescents who lived in Lyuting for more than a month responded that their temporary residence had empowered them to feel connected to their community and provided a sense of security.

Since its establishment in October 2021, the four-story home has served about 80 teenagers and their families through its companion program. Under the program, companion workers, usually in their 20s or 30s with a background in psychology, develop a healthy bond with the adolescents, providing care and love, dealing with their emotional dilemmas and helping them identify and express their feelings.

"Over the past two years, some organizations have consulted us about our service model and we hope it can be expanded, leveraging greater social forces to help more people in need," Sheng says.

Depression and anxiety disorders trouble nearly 30 million adolescents across the country, according to the 2022 blue book on national depression released by People's Daily. Among them, 2 million are estimated to have dropped out of school due to psychological distress.

"After they receive therapy in a hospital or special school, most of these teenagers are trapped at home, which may not provide a good environment for recovery," she says.

An outdoor picnic is a moment to cherish. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

More than moodiness

For 17-year-old Jiang Yu (not her real name), the breaking point came a year ago when she found that the flash disk, on which she stored homework, was missing before she was about to leave home for school.

At first, she became nervous and anxious, but suddenly a single thought seemed to question her reason to live: "If I cannot do anything right, what's the point of life?" Jiang was overcome by uncontrollable sobbing, then screaming, and she locked herself in her room.

Over the following month, she spent most of the time in bed with the curtains drawn. Lying in the darkness, she felt loneliness engulf her like a tide. She was diagnosed with severe depression, and tried to return to school, but was not ready.

"When I first met depressed teens, I couldn't understand some of their behavior, such as inflicting self-harm, until I got to know a 17-year-old girl with severe depression and bipolar disorder who had to leave school," Sheng says.

The year before quitting school, the teen had been able to study from 6:30 am to 9:30 pm, but by the end of the semester, she found she had learned nothing and when she tried to harm herself with a knife, she felt relieved, according to Sheng.

"What everyone thinks is fragile and abnormal is actually an attempt by these children to try to survive. When you need to feel pain to relieve your emotions, it means that almost all other methods of dealing with emotions have failed. The wounds, the actions, are actually a silent cry for help," Sheng says.

People often say in China that depression is "a cold of the spirit", and while for Sheng, this may help remove the stigma about depression, she also feels it is a bit too frivolous.

"These adolescents suffer from physical pain, and emotions that are difficult to deal with, and have a strong sense of alienation and helplessness. A lot of teens tell me that when they are barely able to go back to school, they need to expend a lot of energy to support themselves and appear 'normal'. But inside, they feel like they're not, which is like standing on an isolated island in a crowd," she says.

Sheng has firsthand experience of depression and knows that it can hit anyone.

"At first, it was insomnia and a pain in the shoulder and feeling anxious all the time. For more than a month, I tried to adjust myself through jogging, but it didn't work. When I got the diagnosis of mild to moderate depression in 2016, it was a mixed feeling, because on one hand, I understood the cause, while on the other, I didn't want to label myself with the disease," says the former reporter from the Beijing-based media group Caixin.

In 2019, she went to the London School of Economics and Political Science for a master's degree in anthropology. In 2021, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she was trapped in London and provided online consultation for depressed teenagers on Dogo, a Beijing-based self-help and mutual assistance community for patients and their families.

A meal provides residents with a chance to catch up on events. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Community services

"At that time, I found that in Europe and the United States, there are comprehensive services to support the rehabilitation of depressed adolescents, including foundation-school cooperation projects, government-funded community centers, hospital-led rehabilitation services, and commercial rehabilitation centers. But I found that in China, the support network is not well-established," Sheng says.

In October 2021, Lyuting Home was founded by Sheng and Zou Feng, the owner of the building where Lyuting is based, and welcomed its first six residents. In July, it was selected as a representative program in a report on mental health services for adolescents edited by the Rici Foundation, a charitable group in Guangdong province. In October, Lyuting was selected in the startup program — SEED acceleration.

Li Xiangzhi, who is in charge of Dogo, also says that many parents think that stopping the taking of antidepressants is a sign of full recovery, but real recovery is not a straightforward affair, and involves the elimination of symptoms and reduction of the risk of relapse.

Chinese psychiatrists evaluate and diagnose adolescent depression, typically using the International Classification of Diseases 10th revision by the World Health Organization, and the fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

For Sheng, it means that as long as a person's performance meets certain categories, they can be diagnosed with depression.

"But in my opinion, the medical category has its limitations. When you spend time with people who suffer depression, you find that the medical term is only one perspective. The thing we called depression is a complicated dilemma, which affects different people in different ways," Sheng says.

She adds that the complexity of depression means the rehabilitation process requires multidimensional support, and in addition to medical treatment, also needs to be combined with psychotherapy and social support.

"I hope Lyuting can help people with depression be seen as complete, with pain and happiness, but not with the label of mental illness," Sheng says.

Because mental illness does not define the essence of a person, it is only one of life's dilemmas, and in a supportive environment and relationship in a supportive society, it does not prevent us from realizing our personal worth, she says.

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