Sat, Apr 21, 2018 - Page 13 News List

Combating stigmas in Taiwan about mental health

While mental illness is still misunderstood and seldom discussed issue in Taiwan, professionals and support groups such as WARM are trying to combat the stigma by encouraging people to share

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

WARM founder Vanessa Wang poses for a photo for World Health Day, April 7, which focused on mental health last year.

Photo courtesy of Vanessa Wang

Whenever Vanessa Wang (王永儀) missed morning classes, she would tell her professor she suffered from chronic vertigo. It was only recently that she mustered up the courage to admit that it was due to her depression and daily panic attacks.

“The first step to defeating [mental illness] is talking about it,” she says.

But it isn’t easy, especially in Taiwan where, although people are becoming more open to seeking professional help, people are still reluctant to talk about their mental health due to deep-rooted social stigma.

Wang says she spent years without support, wondering what was wrong with her before finally seeing a therapist. Last year, she formed WARM (Women Anonymous Reconnecting Mentally), a mental health support group for women, which held its first meeting in Taipei last December.

“We share our stories, our struggles, what we’re going through,” she says. “That encourages people to realize, ‘I should probably do something and it’s okay because she has it too.’ It’s not something to be ashamed of. If we don’t talk, nothing will happen.”

THE STIGMA

According to a survey conducted last year by the John Tung Foundation (董氏基金), 53.2 percent of respondents feel that mental illness is stigmatized in Taiwan. On the other hand, 62 percent “agree or highly agree” that the stigma is unjustified. The same survey shows that 65.3 percent have no clue about available mental health services.

Han Der-yan (韓德彥), assistant professor at Taipei Medical University, says that even in the West, it took many years of educational campaigns before people stopped painting mental issues in a bad light. Taiwan has done well in this field as far as suicide he says, but more work needs to be done as a whole.

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“Without proper education, people will revert to the traditional perspectives they were exposed to growing up,” Han says. “This has to do with the Confucian belief that one is responsible for cultivating his or her own mind. If you’re depressed, it’s because you didn’t do something right; you couldn’t control your own emotions.”

Grace Chen (陳芊羽), counseling psychologist at National Taiwan University (NTU), says that the stigma remains stronger among the older generation because they grew up in less favorable circumstances.

“People have to fulfill their basic needs before they can even consider mental health,” she says. “Back then, mental health was only brought up if someone had something serious, which would often result in institutionalization.”

As an authority figure, parents often find it hard to admit that they know nothing about mental health when their child broaches the subject, often lashing out especially because they received no such support when they were young.

“They might say in a dismissive tone, ‘That’s how things are. Do you think you’re the only person in the world who’s suffering?’” she says.

Wang says her parents simply labeled her a troublemaker, and she felt like she was a burden, a mistake — the odd one in the family.

“What they should have done was take me to a psychologist,” she says.

Lily Li (李欣然), a Chinese-Canadian living in Taiwan, says she felt reluctant to speak about her postpartum depression here — until she discovered WARM.

She says that part of her fear is that the media reports on mental health issues only when they are related to shocking crimes.

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