We’ve all been there – that tough point in our lives when we could use a helping hand.
Counseling. Now there’s a heavily loaded word, and one that might even make you shrink down in your chair. Unfortunately the term often comes with a load of stigma and taboo attached to it, but it doesn’t have to. Not only can life be difficult where your family and home is, but there are particular challenges that are unique to an expat or anyone that has ever moved away from the comfort of their hometown or country. Yet, universally there seems to be a stigma about asking for the help you need and seeking that guidance that can help you cope with the new challenges you’re facing.
In China there is a general lack of mental health awareness and it can be difficult to find the counseling services you need. However, there are groups here in Shanghai that have taken on the challenge of connecting people to professionals and getting past that initial moment of uncertainty when it comes to seeking counseling.
One organization that is tackling the problem head on is REACH, stemming from the Community Center Shanghai. Nikki Lindgren, one of the founders, explains that its purpose “is the coming together of key stakeholders in the community to assess and address the needs and gaps within the health services in Shanghai, with the commitment to giving everyone in the community access to the services they need.” Their role is to fill the disparity between health professionals and those who seek counseling, and address the issue that it is simply too difficult to find counseling services here in Shanghai.
One of the best counseling outlets you can find in Shanghai is the Community Center Shanghai, which was started in 2003 and has over 20 counselors from all over the world. They are all experienced and properly licensed to conduct counseling sessions. Carrie Jones, the Director of Counseling, explains that their counselors cover all kinds of specialties with a diversity of experience and expertise. The most common reason she finds for expats to seek counseling is relationship problems. Marriage counseling is most commonplace as moving to a different country often puts a strain on marriages. As well as that, infidelity seems to be a problem that is particularly prevalent in Shanghai. Parent to child hardships are the second most common reason people seek counseling at the Community Center, as many children struggle with the high expectations and transitions of their new schools.
Carrie deals with people’s anxiety about counseling everyday and tries to break down the stigma that it holds. She explains, “Despite what we sometimes think or feel and what society sometimes tells us, seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness. Many people begin counseling/therapy not because they have any diagnosable mental illness or even any major problem or issue; rather, they do it purely for personal growth and development. Just as some people have a physical trainer to help them enhance their physical fitness level, others like to have a counselor/therapist to help them improve their mental and emotional health and well-being.”
To hear firsthand how counseling has assisted in the adjustment period of moving to China, we sat down with Karen, an expat mother. When her family moved here eight months ago, her son was struggling to settle into his new atmosphere. Going from a small community school in their hometown to a large international school with a diverse and overwhelming population was a big adjustment for him. Although she was comfortable with the idea of counseling, she struggled to find the correct services to help him cope with the change and language barriers. Her main concern when looking for services was the legitimacy of the health network, qualifications, and cost. Luckily her background is in the general field so she knew what to look for; however, she explains, “If I didn’t have this background, I think it would be a lot harder; I have friends who have said so.” After six sessions with a counselor, her son has drastically improved in his ability to manage his new environment, and is now more comfortable in their new city.
Another organization that is changing the face of counseling is Lifeline Shanghai, a non-profit organization. It is an anonymous hotline service in which trained volunteers answer the phone and assist callers in whatever may be troubling them. “Talking Helps” is Lifeline’s mantra, and their mission is to actively listen and help people talk through options. Although they are not an official counseling service, they are able to link callers with a professional, certified counselor whom they feel will be tailored to their needs and finances, always giving at least three referrals.
Coreene Horenko, Outreach Manager at Lifeline, explains that relationship problems are always Lifeline’s number one call, whether it is relating to their partner, colleagues, kids, or even an ayi. Often, people call if they are simply having a “bad China day” and just need someone to listen. Others call because their health insurance does not cover mental health, and they are looking for guidance without the extreme cost. Lifeline sees itself as a frontline service that listens, supports, and connects callers to health services in town.
Slowly but surely, the face of counseling and the mental health field is changing in Shanghai. Organizations such as Lifeline, REACH and the Community Centre Shanghai are taking big strides to make counseling more effective and easier to access, breaking down barriers and changing the minds of people who need help.
>Lifeline Shanghai, 10am-10pm 365 days per year, Hotline Number: 021 6279 8990
> Community Centre Shanghai, multiple locations, (021 3382-1770, www.commumitycenter.cn)