Thousands of psychologists rushed to the disaster zone as news of the devastation caused by the Sichuan earthquake spread, determined to help heal the broken minds that accompanied the broken bodies.
It was the biggest effort of its kind in a country that had rejected the profession for decades as a self-indulgent, bourgeois decadence. Insiders say the public, not Beijing, took the initiative.
'Initially we were spurred on by the media, with lots of journalists calling and asking if we were going to send a team,' says Professor Tang Denghua, deputy director of Peking University's Centre of Clinical Psychology. 'Then, a little later, the Ministry of Health organised a group of about 60 psychologists from Beijing, including six from our centre.' Tang estimates more than 200 psychologists from Beijing travelled to Sichuan.
Yet despite its scale, the effort was patchy on the ground. Survivors talk of trouble finding help and unsystematic or unprofessional aid.
'I felt very sad after the earthquake so I rang 114 [the number for directory inquiries],' says Peng Changrong, a teacher in hard-hit Mianyang city. 'I found a psychologist and talked to her for an hour. I definitely felt more relaxed and relieved afterwards. But it was expensive, she charged 100 yuan [HK$114]. I could have booked her for a month, but she wanted 2,000 yuan and I cannot afford that.' Peng could not find any free, government-organised services.
Dujiangyan father Liu Qiang, who lost his son in the quake when the Juyuan Middle School collapsed, says he has not been offered counselling. Instead, officials directed him to undergo three medical examinations to clear him to try for another baby. (The one-child policy has been eased for victims of the earthquake.)
'It has been an incredibly stressful time, fighting for compensation, also for life insurance, and then they wanted me to do these three physicals,' says Liu.
Save the Children's Chen Xuemei says the skills set among psychologists varied.
'We found there were a lot of psychologists, or just volunteers who thought they were doing psychology, who were actually upsetting the children even more by making them cry,' says Chen. 'They believed it would be good for them.'
The NGO believes only about 5 per cent of children affected by the disaster need specialist help. Ensuring a secure environment in shelters, with as many family members as possible present, is more important, says Chen. 'We've set up nine activity centres in tent cities, where children can draw, do sports, build things, meet other children and play in a safe environment.
'The children [who do] need specialist counselling, should be [seen] by professional psychologists, not by volunteers who don't know what they are doing,' says Chen. 'It was all bit of a mess ... China isn't very mature in this area and even some university departments didn't do a good job.'