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China’s Psychological Counseling After Massive Quake Not Adequate

by Tanya Thomas on November 13, 2008 at 6:09 PM
China’s Psychological Counseling After Massive Quake Not Adequate

It has already been 6 months since thousands of school children lost their lives in the Sichuan earthquake but psychological counseling for families is still wanting in China.

It is a huge effort which is made difficult not just due to limited resources, but also because the idea that emotional traumas can and should be treated is new and alien to many people in this rural part of China.


"It's not that they don't welcome psychological counseling, it is just that besides being resilient and pragmatic, many Chinese farmers have a lot of pride," said Wang Shunong, of the China Red Cross.

"One farmer told me 'if I have psychological problems then all you have to do is starve me for two days and the problems will go away'," she told AFP.

The town of Yinghua, near the epicenter of the May 12 quake, is typical of the counseling needs that, half a year on, are only being partially met.

The magnitude-8.0 quake flattened the middle school and took the lives of 80 children, or one quarter of the entire student body, leaving gaping holes in families of the local community.

The trauma that the survivors continue to experience has led the government to adopt western counseling methods to first help children and later adults, said Jeyathesan Kulasingam, a psychologist with the International Red Cross.

"We are trying not to emotionally remind the children of the disaster or the trauma, but actually assist them to move on, to grow, to accept it and to become stronger," said Kulasingam, who has been in Yinghua for four months.

Yinghua is no isolated case. According to official estimates, up to 9,000 teachers and students were among the nearly 70,000 people who died in the earthquake. The number among the over 17,000 listed as missing remains unclear.

Besides coping with the loss of their classmates and numerous physical handicaps, many Yinghua students are still having difficulties facing the memories of the earthquake and the collapse of their school, he said.

"We have kids who were trapped under the rubble who still fear sleeping alone, of sleeping with the lights out," said Kulasingam, who worked with disaster relief in the Indian Ocean tsunami and quakes in Pakistan and Turkey.

"The kids remember their dead classmates, they remember their situations before, some of the children have lost focus on life and their school work."

Kulasingam, a Malaysian, is helping the China Red Cross train psychological counselors to help students, parents, teachers and officials.

Special focus will be given to women whose only child died in school collapses and who are unable to conceive another child, while families with handicapped children will also need special counseling.

China's "one child" family planning policy has made the loss of the only child particularly difficult for many parents.

It has also contributed to the grief that the deaths seem to have been avoidable, as poor construction quality is seen as a main reason why up to 7,000 schools collapsed.

Mourning parents have staged protests, and many have alleged that corruption led to the shoddy construction of educational facilities.

Partly in response, the government has already vowed to investigate every school collapse, while offering compensation to the families of dead school children.

"Definitely the psychological impact on the parents and adults is much greater than it is on the children," said Wang Wenzhong, a psychologist with the China Academy of Sciences who is working with Kulasingam.

"We have not begun the psychological counseling of the parents yet but setting up community assistance for the parents is another aspect of our work."

Source: AFP
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