Wan Yanhai and an empty chair at an Amnesty International event. Photo credit: Initiatives for China.

Wan Yanhai, one of China’s leading activists and health advocates, explains the tragic irony of mental health in China today in a fascinating story for Foreign Policy.

Trained in medicine in the 1980s, Mr. Yanhai worked for a government health institute and then founded the Beijing Aizhixing Institute for Health Education in 1994, dedicated to AIDS awareness. Aizhixing has been repeatedly subject to harassment by several Chinese government agencies. Much of the important work of the organization — which includes providing services to some of China’s most vulnerable citizens — was banned as was any reporting on Mr. Yanhai or the organization. Fearing for his safety, he and his family left China for the United States last May.

Through this work, he came across marginalized populations and stigmatized people in China, including those wrongly labeled as mentally ill. In his own words: ‘’I have seen people sent to mental hospitals for being gay, for domestic disputes, and for political dissent.‘’

Wai says that sadly, many who need treatment won’t get it, while many who don’t are forced into treatment to silence political dissent. Here a brief excerpt of his story: “Because of my own work on the controversial topic of AIDS, I have been detained three times, and in May 2010 I left China because of increasing political pressure. I have crossed paths with many activists and NGO leaders in similar positions; we all want to improve the lives of people in China, but the government finds our work threatening. We did not form organizations to be against the Chinese government, but we are sometimes considered by the officials to be dissidents or troublemakers.”

“One example is Zhou Yi Juan, a Buddhist nun who in 2005 organized a memorial in Tiananmen Square to the victims of the June 4, 1989, massacre. Afterward, she was forced to enter a mental hospital for psychiatric treatment. In 2007, Aizhixing supported her with a fellowship to write a memoir about this experience; two years later, she took legal action and sued the hospital. I believe that these cases should be known more widely.’’

The investigation into the Aizhixing Institute is a part of an troubling trend: many organizations that conduct work in defense of human rights are subject to harassment, intimidation and excessive investigations. Last week, on the occassion of the China-US state visit, Mr. Yanghai issued this statement to The House Foreign Affairs Committee: ”In the past 6 years, NGOs have been harassed relentlessly by the government, including: ordering them to change their names and undermine their identity; imposing arbitrary restrictions on their access to banking and foreign exchange; launching selective taxation investigations against NGOs working on human rights; cancelling licenses of organizations and individual professionals; banning or threatening to ban NGOs; and detaining NGO leaders or placing them under house arrest.”

He says that it is his wish to ”go back to China to serve the people there; that our organization can operate safely and be treated according to the law. When so many others in China openly flaunt the law and abuse their position for their own gain, it should not be too much to ask that those of us who wish only to help our fellow citizens be allowed to do so without fear of persecution by the authorities.”

You can read his story about the mental health system in China here.

According to China’s own Center for Disease Control and Prevention, there are more than 100 million mental patients in China in 2009.

The World Health Organization released a report last year stating that mental illness accounts for 20 percent of all illnesses in China, more than twice the world average.

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