The International Journal of Psychosocial Rehabilitation
Family Caregiving Of Clients With Mental Illness
In The People’s Republic of China


Dr. Kam-shing Yip
Associate Professor
Department of Applied Social Sciences
Hong Kong Polytechnic University
Hung Hom, Kowloon, Hong Kong

Fax: (852) 27736558

Yip K-S. (2005). Family Caregiving Of Clients With Mental Illness In The People’s
 Republic of China (Part1: Historical Background).
  International Journal of Psychosocial Rehabilitation.
10 (1),27-33.


In this paper, the writer attempts to describe a brief historical review of family caregiving of clients with mental illness in the People’s Republic of China. Family responsibility in taking care of persons with mental illness was encouraged by traditional Chinese culture. However, political movement and ideologies in Marxism and Communism tended to replace family caregiving by political education and class brother concern. Later, the decline of the Cultural Revolution and modernization of economy brought back the importance of family caregiving in treatment and rehabilitation of persons with mental illness.


Mental illness has long been a great problem in our society. The treatment and rehabilitation of clients with mental illness are regarded as a heavy burden for every government. In the People Republic ofsd China, it is estimated that there are 16 millions of adults with mental illness; 30 millions of adolescents and children with emotional and behavioral problems and numerous old people with dementia and mental problems (Ministry of Public Health, Ministry of Civil Affairs, Ministry of Public Security and Disabled Persons Federation, 2002). Apart from psychiatric treatment and rehabilitation services, the effort of the family caregivers can never be undermined. In the U.S.A, about 65% clients with mental illness who are discharged from mental hospitals returned to their own families (Goldman, 1982; Lefley, 1987). In Canada, around one to two thirds of persons with schizophrenia live with their family members (Seeman, 1988). However, in the People’s Republic of China, over 90% of persons with schizophrenia live with and are taken cared by their family members (Phillips, 1993; Pearson & Phillips, 1994). The burden of family caregiving in the People’s Republic of China is further intensified by its unique social, cultural and legal contexts. In this paper, the writer discusses the plight of family caregivers of clients with mental illness in the People’s Republic of China.


Family care of clients with mental illness is an endless burden to family caregivers. Lefley (1996) identified three types of burdens faced by family caregivers. These burdens are also echoed by related studies.

1.      Objective burdens in coping with the mental illness (financial burden, time and effort in caregiving, disruption of daily routine and social life) . (Lefley, 1996; Lefley, 1992; Estroff, 1994; Saylor, 1994; Hatfield & Lefley, 1999).

2.      Subjective burdens in facing the mental illness (feelings of loss, shame, worry, anger and hopeless towards the client with mental illness) (Lefley, 2000 & 2001).

3.      Burdens in management of problem behavior of clients with mental illness (assault, mood swing, unpredictability, negative symptoms) (Lee, 2000; Bayer, 1996).

Regarding various types of family caregivers, parental caregivers seem to be most responsible ones. But they are also highly stressful, frustrated in taking care of their children with mental illness (Lefley, 1996; Lefley, 2000; Lee,,; Hatfield & Lefley, 1987 & 2000).  For spouse as caregivers, they suffer the transformation of their beloved ones with strong feelings of loss and grievance (Judge, 1994). Also, behavioral problems and functional difficulties of their spouses with mental illness are difficult to handle and explain to their children (Noh & Avison, 1988). Facing all these burdens, family members possess various types of coping strategies. There are various factors influencing the coping of family caregivers. These factors are availability of social support and network, opportunities and their willingness to join various types of family support services and programs (Solomon & Draine 1994 & Johnson, 1994). In fact, stress and coping of family caregivers are also influenced by mental health services and policy, as well as social and cultural contexts (Lefley, 2001; Lefley, 1998; Milstein,, 1994; Manderscheid & Barrett, 1987; Manderscheid & Sonnenschein, 1992). In this paper, the writer tries to discuss various factors that influence the family caregiving of clients with mental illness in the People Republic of China. As related issues can be covered within the length of an article, this paper is divided into two parts, Part I and Part II. In Part I, the writer will give a historical overview of mental health services and family caregiving in China. In Part II, the writer will discuss the current situation of family caregiving in China.


Before the Establishment of the People’s Republic of China
Before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, mental asylums were built by western missionary. The first one was built by an American missionary, John Kerr (Tucker, 1983; Spencer, 1981; Pearson, 1991). Gradually, small size asylums were found in Beijin,. Shenyang, and Suzhou. Only a few people with mental illness could be treated in these asylums, including five major hospitals and psychiatric wards (Bowman, 1948; Kao, 1979; Pearson, 1995; McCartney, 1926). Most clients with mental illness were in fact, either not being recognized or taken care by their own families. Within traditional Chinese medical perspective, mental illnesses were perceived as `insufficient spirit and air’ (weakening of mind due to poor condition of body) or `saliva blocks one’s mind’ (failure of one’s immune system confusing one’s mind and mentality). In terms of Buddhism, mental illnesses were consequences of one’s previous bad deeds done by oneself and his or her family members. Under such condition, persons with mental illness were only treated by Chinese herbalist doctors.  Most Chinese may seek the blessings from gods in local temples in curing the mental problems of their family members.

Initial Political Care from 1949 to 1963

After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the Communist Party embraced a political orientation in delivering related social and welfare services. Political ideologies such as Maoism and Socialism and political bureaucracy played a vital role in shaping mental health services. In 1958, the First National Conference of psychiatrists at Nanjing determined to abandon westernized individualistic treatment and replaced by collective political education (Lin, 1985); open door policy (Shen, 1985); rural home based treatment and indigenized Chinese treatment (Ho, 1974; Chin & Tuan, 1969; Pearson, 1995). Within this period, communist oriented `class brothers and sisters’ as well as `class enemies’ challenged the traditional Chinese family structures. Chinese people were taught to criticize their family members’ Capitalistic evil thinking so as to defeat class enemies. Under this circumstance, family care for clients with mental illness though still practiced by Chinese people, but was suppressed by related policy makers and professionals. Instead, medical professionals identified clients with mental illness as `class brother’ to fight against `mental illness’ which originated from `evil Capitalistic thinking’. In fact, class brother and bourgeois within Communism, was a challenge to traditional Chinese family orientation. In traditional Chinese culture, the family is so important to the Chinese that a special kind of strong familism has been formed, stressing the undeniable predominance of the family over its members in almost all domains of life (Yang, 1995:22).  Under the influence of traditional familism, individual Chinese have to subordinate their personal goals, interests, and welfare for the sake of their families (Yang, 1995) or sacrifice himself or herself for the sake of family honor, harmony, prolongation, and family reputation and wealth. However, under the influence of Communism, class brothers and the benefit to Community Party tended to challenge or even diminish the importance of familism. Family caregiving for persons with mental illness seemed to be replaced by caregiving rendered by political brothers and sisters.

Full Political Care During Cultural Revolution (1964- 1976)

During the Cultural Revolution (1964- 1976), the whole China was fully occupied by a zealous worship of political leader, Mao Zedong. His idea and ideologies were regarded as most responsible way to build up the `New Communist China’. Perception, treatment and rehabilitation of clients with mental illness were interpreted by Mao’s thinking and ideas. Revolutionary Committees in mental hospitals, neighborhood and in working places monopolized diagnosis, admission, discharge of clients with mental illness in mental hospitals as well as their integration within own communities. Political education of Mao’s ideas was regarded as the most effective way to cure mental illness (Yip, 1989; Kao, 1974; Kao, 1979; Leung, Miller and Leung, 1987; Pearson, 1995). Under this circumstance, family was no long regarded as the cohesive social unit for everybody in the society. Instead zealous political worship encouraged mutual criticism and battle among family members with different political orientations. Family care of clients with mental illness was totally ignored by related parties. In some cases, those family members with close connection with Capitalistic linkage might bring extreme mental stress or political torture to other family members. There were considered as the sources of `Capitalistic Evil’. A mechanism of `self criticism’ and `mutual criticism were used in political education group for persons with mental illness. In this group, members would critically debate, argue and criticize every one’s Capitalistic thinking so to eliminate `class evil’ in one’s mind and one’s family. Very often, one had to be highly critical about his or her Capitalistic family members. Such family members were labeled as `class enemies’ and Capitalistic thinking is regarded as the sources of mental illness. Some `Red Guards’ in those days even tortured their family members to death so to demonstrate their faithfulness to Maoism, Marxisim and Communism (Yip, 1989; Yip, 2004). Within this period, family caregiving, was in fact, totally replaced by `political caregiving’ for persons with mental illness.

Mental Health Services Reform (1976- 1987)

After Mao’s death and the fall of the Gang of Four, under the strong, leadership of Deng Xio Ping, China was gradually regained its momentum on economic development and modernization. Related welfare and social services examined their deficits and weaknesses. In 1987, the Council approved a formal document. `Opinions about Strengthening Mental Health Work’ (Pearson, 1995). In this document, the Chinese government admitted that measures had to be done to face the drastic increase in the prevalence of mental illness from 0.7% in 1970s to 1.54% in 1980s. Furthermore, because of serious inadequacy in related services, only 10% clients with schizophrenia could be treated in mental health services. Most of clients with schizophrenia could thus be cared by their own family members (The Second National Meeting on Mental Health Service: 1987) Within this orientation, the role of family care and family responsibility in taking care of clients with mental illness were resumed. However, because of the prolonged closed door policy in isolating influence of western countries, related professionals and policy makers did not propose any services or intervention to support family caregivers of clients with mental illness. Also, there

Commericalization of Mental Health Services (1988 to Present)

Drastic economic development in the People’s Republic of China brought along not only change in industrial production and urban life but also commercialization of welfare and medical services. China government began to withdraw funding from mental hospitals. In 1990s, staff in hospitals run by the Ministry of Public Health had to find 30% to 50% for their take home pay from the charging of admitted patients (Phillips, 1993; Pearson, 1995). In 2000, many hospitals have to run on a self- sufficient basis. For those deprived and poor clients with mental illness, they had to be admitted by mental hospitals run by the Ministry of Civil Affairs. On the one hand, under the influence of western scholars, professionals in China began to implement various types of family interventions including family counseling, home based care and family support group, (Zhang, Yan & Phillips, 1994; Zhang, Wang, Li & Phillips, 1994; Wang, Gong and Niu, 1994; Wang, 1998). On the other hand, all these new developed services only support these clients’ families who were enough to pay for their services.

As a summary, this paper is a brief description about the historical development of mental health service and family caregiving for persons with mental illness in the People’s Republic of China. It seems that family caregiving in China was influenced by two forces. One was the political control and sanctioning on mental health services that reached its peak in times of Cultural Revolution. Another force was the traditional Chinese cultural perception of mental illness and family caregiving. Facing the drastic economic development and commercialization of social and medical service, there evolve another forces of scarcity of resources of in providing adequate mental health services and related support to both persons with mental illness and their family members. In the next article (Part II: Current Situation), the writer will discuss how these three forces shaped the challenges and opportunities of family caregivng for persons with mental illness in China.

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