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

“I don’t want to be painted in the same picture,” she says. “Even to my friends, I don’t want them to tread carefully around me. I’d like to keep the conversation to people who know what’s going on.”

Han says that if people start to view mental illness as a disease, then it will help destigmatize the issue. He compares it to obesity — if it’s treated as an illness, then people are less likely to make fun of overweight people or trivialize their problems by telling them to eat less or practice self control.

“For example, depression should be treated as ... seriously as schizophrenia,” he says. “Depression also robs people of their functionality and can even lead to death.”

Han adds that if depression was perceived as a physical disease, then people would stop blaming themselves and seek help, just like they do when they come down with the flu.

“If someone has cancer, nobody will tell them to snap out of it,” Wang quips.

SEEKING HELP

Despite the stigma, Chen believes the public is becoming more open minded about mental health issues. He cites NTU’s student counseling center, which is today fully booked compared to when she started less than three years ago. While most Western students had undergone some kind of therapy before they came to her, she noted that most Taiwanese students had no idea what to expect.

“But the fact that [Taiwanese students] often tell me they came at the advice of a friend, indicates that they are talking about it among themselves,” she says.

However, the stigma still runs deep, as she has met students who are either terrified of people finding out, or look for a resolution in only one session.

The university in the past few years has been promoting the counseling center — the available resources are emphasized during freshman orientation and through various workshops and events, and the school has an “NTU Peer” program that teaches students how to persuade their friends to visit the center.

This is all easier to do in a campus setting, especially when the service is included in the tuition. Taiwan’s healthcare does technically cover therapy, but the system does not pay much more for a 40-minute session than a 15-minute one, giving little incentive for hospitals to provide the longer service, something that few in fact provide.

Out-of-pocket therapy typically costs around NT$2,000 (US$68) per hour, which is not a figure many people can afford. That’s why support groups are important, Wang says, but she could not find any in Taipei until she founded her own.

“Fifteen minutes a week is not enough,” she says. “I need someone to remind me every single day that I am supported, that I am not alone.”

Chen affirms that such groups are rare — most support groups in Taiwan focus on specific issues such as divorce or domestic violence.

Li has not been able to attend therapy due to having two young children and living in Tamsui, and she hasn’t been able to attend the weekly WARM meetings. But she says she has found solace through the WARM Facebook group, where she receives prompt responses to her posts.

“Anytime I feel that I need someone to talk me off the ledge, that’s when I’ll go to [WARM’s Facebook page],” she says. “Depression is a very isolating disease. The fact that WARM has created this community for people to feel not alone is more important than anything. For now, that’s enough for me to get by.”

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