Every year, during China’s college entrance examination or gaokao, all that’s abuzz in the town of Hechuan in Yongxin County town in the eastern Jiangxi Province is the highest scores or admissions to the country’s top schools.
If a local student makes it into one, neighbors and relatives bask in their success at banquets hosted by the parents. Sometimes, the community even hangs up a banner congratulating a triumphant student.
But such “model students” are few and far between. In Hechuan, most teenagers are over-disciplined, subjected to excessive expectations, and constantly compared with their peers. All the while, their own efforts go unrecognized.
Parents of such students care more about academic performance and class rankings than their children’s emotional wellbeing. Eventually, the sustained pressure to maintain high grades spawns hormone-fueled clashes between pubescent children and their parents. The result: “problem kids” and broken parent-child relationships.
It’s why Hechuan’s teenagers are troubled. Some are burnt out, some are depressed, and others are addicted to online games. Many drop out of school to just stay at home, sleep irregular hours, and make little contact with the outside world. To break the habit, their parents eventually force them into counseling.
That’s where mental health professionals Shu Huai and Weiwei come in.
Originally from Yongxin county, both women say their own personal struggles inspired them to join the profession. Shu and Weiwei also add that in providing the town’s residents with the urgent counseling they need, their own lives have changed for the better too.
In urban China over the last few years, mental health is now generally recognized as a problem on par with any physical disease. But across vast rural swathes of China, the field is still heavily stigmatized, and the psychological wellbeing of teenagers is particularly dire.
Although problems manifest in different ways, they often share similar root causes, say both counselors. In Shu Huai’s observations, it’s either that the parents are overbearing or that the kids lacked companionship when they were younger.
Zhang Bo/Vetta/People Visual
Five years ago, Shu Huai was a middle-school Chinese language teacher popular with her students. But like many of Hechuan’s parents, raising her own daughter proved a challenge.
Shu was always eager to excel when she was growing up and, as a mother, imposed similar expectations on her daughter. She would sometimes even stand and watch over her daughter’s shoulder as she did her homework.
In stark contrast to herself, Shu says her daughter is naturally undisciplined. Her grades in elementary school were good but declined in middle school. Since then, the gap between her and her classmates has only widened, leaving Shu often anxious and, at times, even angry.
Shu admits her daughter attempted to confide in her, but only received a terse reply in return: “All you need to think about is your studies,” Shu would say. As time went by, her daughter eventually gave up trying to talk to her.
This only increased Shu’s anxiety, first leading to insomnia and then a lack of appetite, which caused massive weight loss.
That’s when Shu finally turned to a former mentor and psychologist for help, who suggested she study and obtain a counseling certificate herself to learn and adjust to her mental state. The entire process — from studying, to taking the exam, to officially becoming a counselor — took her just two months. Shu recalls hoping that her daughter might even follow her example in academics.
Even after obtaining her certificate, she continues to study using audio and video tutorials online. A few years ago, she became particularly interested in psychoanalysis and began searching for case studies, theories, and books by well-known teachers.
In the last couple of years, her interest in case studies has continued. Every now and then, she buys a package deal of courses and cases on multiple online platforms or makes appointments with professional supervisors to discuss cases they’ve previously encountered.
Since Shu began working as a counselor five years ago, her daughter’s grades haven’t soared with the extra encouragement as Shu once expected. But then, her daughter’s grades aren’t as important to Shu either.
A counselor talks to a student in Nanping, Fujian province, June 2020. People Visual
As she counseled more and more troubled teens in Yongxin County, Shu slowly realized that her previous approach to education was unhealthy. From a mother who once only cared about grades, Shu is now willing to sit down with her daughter just to truly listen to how she feels.
“The truth is that her personality has always been fundamentally different from mine. She’s not naturally competitive,” says Shu. “I was the one standing behind her pushing her. She was so young back then, and it couldn’t have been easy to bear the kind of burden I put on her.”.
“I used to think that, as my daughter, she absolutely had to stand out from the crowd, but now I believe that what really matters is whether she’s satisfied with her own progress.”
A teacher at a special education school in Yongxin County, Weiwei works part-time as a mental health counselor. Some children in her class have autism or cerebral palsy; some are intellectually disabled; others are deaf. Weiwei often feels that the thoughts and feelings of such children are more delicate than others.
When she first started teaching, Weiwei recalls feeling uncomfortable. The children’s comprehension skills were poor, and no matter how many times she repeated herself, some seemed unable to remember what she taught. On occasion, she suspected the children did it deliberately to wind her up; sometimes, she was afraid it was because she was not up to the job.
Unwilling to let her colleagues know how insecure she was, she recalls often crying in secret.
Once, just before Father’s Day, Weiwei said in class: “Fathers all love us very much…” But before she could finish, a little boy abruptly burst into tears. She found out later that the boy’s father was a migrant worker in the city and came back home only once a year.
She says deaf children would sometimes run over and ask her: “Teacher, some people were staring at me just now — do you think they were talking about me?”
In them, she saw her younger, self-conscious, insecure self. Her parents were migrant workers, too, so she was sent to live with her uncle’s family, and they valued boys more than girls. Back then, only the headteacher of her elementary school class willingly listened to her feelings.
Weiwei hopes to play the same supportive role for her students. After starting at the special education school, Weiwei wondered if studying mental health would give her insights into her students’ state of mind. This reflection inspired her to become a counselor.
Since she began counseling part-time, she’s gradually realized: “These children sometimes don’t know that their behavior will make others angry, so their disobedience is not necessarily due to my lack of ability. I now think that the most important thing is not their grades, but that they enjoy coming to school.”
She empathizes not only with the children, but their parents as well. On several occasions, she cried with parents as they explained their child’s circumstances at home. She believes that empathy is a two-way street. “When I show them I understand that it is not easy for them, they also understand that it is not easy for me as a teacher. It’s a reciprocal process.”
An aerial view of Hechuan Town, Jiangxi province, 2019. From @jgs1272 on Weibo