TV show breaks taboo on facing mental health
Programme finds huge change in public's attitude towards discussing personal issues
At a nightclub in Fujian , a young Sichuan native humiliates himself for a living.
He removes his clothes and shakes his 1.5-metre, 220kg frame for the audience in a nightly freak show organised by his father. If the punters are prepared to pay a little more, they can even touch the flabby skin on his massive body.
'He will always be useless,' his father said.
The 25-year-old, who works at a family-run teahouse, has long been the subject of contempt from family and strangers because of his obesity, and said he hated himself.
But his life could change after he and his father appeared on a new programme on China Central Television's Channel 12.
The show, Psychological Talk, is the first on the mainland to employ trained therapists to advise guests on a range of psychological and personal issues. Guests' problems are explored in front of a studio audience before possible solutions are discussed.
Show host Yang Fengchi, a faculty member of the Capital University of Medical Sciences, tested the father and son with a series of simple games. He then offered suggestions on how the son could overcome his self-loathing and how the father could gain respect for his child.
'You have to admit the fact you are really fat, but this does not mean the end of the world. You should face reality,' Professor Yang said. 'There are many ways to have a decent life, and you can achieve this even if you are fat.'
About 16 million people, or 1.23 per cent of the mainland population, are thought to be struggling with emotional and psychological problems, but most do not have access to counselling. A significant proportion does not even know what psychology is.
According to the China Disease Control Centre, each year about 250,000 people kill themselves on the mainland. A survey of college students by the centre in September found that 16 to 25 per cent reported problems such as anxiety, fear, nervous exhaustion and depression.
Further, the poor mental health of Beijing's white-collar workers was exposed in a December survey, in which 89 per cent of respondents said they were stressed, anxious, tense and fatigued as a result of living in an insecure, competitive society.
Psychological Talk was launched quietly in December and did not initially attract much attention from viewers or the media. One CCTV source said the station deliberately opted for a low-key beginning after doing some market research. 'Some of us feared the programme would not survive long because people are reluctant to admit they are a 'patient with a psychological problem' - a phrase usually meant as a synonym for a lunatic,' the source said.
But Professor Yang, one of three psychologists invited to take part in the programme, said he had been confident audiences would embrace the show.
'The producer and directors did not expect the programme to survive long because they thought Chinese people were too shy and conservative to talk about their private life in public,' he said.
The doubters were proved wrong. After six weeks on the air, the show consistently rates well and is CCTV-12's most-watched programme.
Every day, dozens of people from around the nation call the programme's hotline, most of them keen to appear on the show.
'It's because there is strong demand among viewers for counselling and understanding of psychological problems,' Professor Yang said. 'Eighty per cent of Chinese people experience these kinds of problems during different stages of their lives.'
Rapid economic development and a diversity of ideologies have transformed the mainland into an increasingly competitive environment with significant cultural and social changes.
'People are starting to realise that mental health is crucial to a happy and healthy life and the programme is a good platform to spread understanding about psychology,' Professor Yang said.