Psychotherapist, Director of CandleX
Time: Oct 2023
Stepping out of the campus of an international school in Tianjin, I couldn’t help feeling hopeful and inspired by the effort made by this school to improve its students’ mental health.
In many schools in China, students are not willing to seek counseling and therapy support from school counselors. One time, I was told that the room where students go to for counseling and therapy is called the ‘crazy room’ and ‘No students want to volunteer themselves to go’. This was a typical description for Chinese schools. Even in international schools, situations are not much better.
Growing up in China, I’ve witnessed a significant improvement of people’s attitude towards mental health in the past decades. Working as a therapist and advocate for mental health, I am usually in contact with people who seek my help, my opinions and services. If I am not self-aware, I tend to forget that my experiences are skewed because the majority of people that I work with volunteer themselves to my services. There are many people out there that still cannot talk about mental health, still feel ashamed of feeling bad or going through a hard time. I do not always have access directly to these groups. But luckily, in recent years, there’s a growing number of workplaces and schools that are paying more attention to student mental health, and actively seeking external support to reduce stigma and bring awareness to the very core of being a human: our emotions.
An international school in Tianjin is one of them.
In Sep 2023, I delivered a workshop to their high school students on campus. Although it’s important to teach students emotional regulation skills, and address common struggles of peer relations, family pressure, academic stress, the school counselor and I decided to first begin by covering the basics of stigma reduction. Only when shame dies, can a person accept themselves where they are, learn emotional coping skills, and seek help. In schools today, even in international schools, we cannot rush into “teaching” yet when the students’ emotional brain is still offline.
90 mins workshop went by quickly. I gave them an chance to anonymously express their struggles and rate them according to the level of stress they experience. We then categorized the submissions so we could collectively see them, thus bringing these topics into the light. We had moments where we addressed the very real, but often taboo topic, of contemplating life and death. I showed them post cards of adults who live with bipolar disorder who I worked with and who joined me to do awareness raising in Beijing. All of these, luckily, help those who struggle in isolation alone to understand that they are not alone. As they wrote in their feedback, this workshop gave them a beam of light that they too, could recover.
In my nearly decade-long campaign to raise awareness on mental health, I always talk to participants’ emotional brain, where shame resides. I share stories - my stories, stories of community members, stories of adults or teens I’ve worked with who’ve joined us to share their personal experiences with mental health. I try to create an environment of safe and strong vulnerability that we all need in order to be allowed to feel the difficult feelings, and be okay with to them. We cannot ask a student or an adult to go see a counselor and hope they’d listen by explaining to them why it’s helpful. We must talk to the emotional part of them that resists getting help, even though they may logically think it’s not a bad idea.
I admire educators who think outside the box to address mental health on campus, and I am inspired that more and more educators are reaching out to do whole school mental health, in addition to putting school counselors into place. Mentally health students mean mentally healthy adults, and a mentally healthy society means more peace and joy in this world.