Lifeline Shanghai – China’s only English-language lifeline for depressed expats
AChinese girl recently cried out for help at Zhihu, China’s equivalent of online Q&A forum Quora, because she did not know where else to find help for her American boyfriend, who has been suffering from severe depression since arriving in China. Indeed, the need for mental health services in Chinese cities such as Shanghai is rising, as culture shock, language barriers and an inability to integrate into an alien society is not uncommon among foreigners here.
A recent InterNations study shows that there are over 900,000 foreigners living in China, with Shanghai home to the second-largest foreign community after South China’s Guangdong Province.
Access to local mental health professionals for expats here, however, can be difficult. For many foreigners, services and support systems they may have had back in their home countries may not exist or are hard to find in China, even in ultra-modern metropolises like Shanghai.
September 10 was World Suicide Prevention Day, an awareness campaign to encourage a global commitment to prevent suicides. The day was first recognized in 2003 as an initiative of the International Association for Suicide Prevention and endorsed by the World Health Organization.
With this year’s theme “Take a minute, change a life,” it asks community members to take a moment to listen in a nonjudgmental way to those in need, as a sympathetic ear can sometimes mean the difference between life and death.
The theme accords with the values of Lifeline Shanghai, a locally based group of concerned volunteers who listen to callers in “a confidential, anonymous and nonjudgmental manner.” Lifeline Shanghai is a nonprofit organization that operates an English-speaking helpline for the city’s international community. It has helped tens of thousands of mentally distressed foreigners here since receiving its first call in 2004.
A difficult time
Teresa called Lifeline Shanghai seven years ago when she fell into depression and anxiety after just six weeks in Shanghai. She moved here with her husband but they were unable to be together except on weekends due to his work. Worse still, her mother back home was diagnosed with breast cancer at the same time.
“The gentleman who answered promised me confidentiality; he let me cry; gave me resources on where to get help,” Teresa said in a WeChat article shared by Lifeline Shanghai, adding that she was eventually referred to a local therapist who helped her get past this difficult time in her life.
Lifeline Shanghai remains the sole Englishspeaking crisis hot line service in the Chinese mainland. They provide referral and counseling services to callers. Each month their “helpline” assistants respond to over 180 calls or online chats, Coreene Horenko, outreach manager of Lifeline Shanghai, told the Global Times.
“We receive calls on a broad range of issues including relationships with family, partners, coworkers, dealing with substance abuse, finances, cultural adjustment, mental health issues and physical illness,” Horenko said.
The callers also vary in age, ranging from teenagers
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After assessing a caller’s level of risk, the operator asks the caller to make a plan, such as a simple agreement that they will call back in the morning or later the same day. It also includes talking through who can support them and what can they do if their desire for self-harm increases.
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“We don’t offer advice, but rather a listening ear, which is often all that people need,” Horenko told the Global Times, explaining that close friends or family members are sometimes too well-meaning or too inea volved to satisfy such needs, though the ide of seeing a
therapist is also not desirable or feasible for many.
“To speak with someone over the telephone or via an online chat is a good first step in getting the support they need,” Horenko said.
However, Horenko stressed that their helpline service is not an alternative to therapy. “Many callers continue to call us for several weeks as we help them through a crisis, but we continually talk to them about the importance of meeting face-toface with a mental health professional,” Horenko said.
A lonely place
Lifeline Shanghai is volunteer-based, which means it relies entirely on the time and efforts of others. Currently, they have 52 trained, multilingual volunteers in the city, both foreign and local Chinese, who donate their time and emotional support.
Julio from US has been volunteering for over five years with Lifeline. He came across an advertisement in a Shanghai newspaper and made up his mind to join because, as an expat himself, he understands that Shanghai, despite being one of the world’s most populated metropolises, can also be a profoundly lonely place.
“These people need a friendly ear from time to time. And I’m happy to lend them one,” Julio told the Global Times, explaining that he was trained how to handle a wide variety of calls, from relationship issues or drug abuse to depression or suicide.
Listening is a skill that is always easier said than done, he said. Patience, empathy, a nonjudgmental attitude and a willingness to let the other person speak are what is expected from every volunteer.
“We learn communication, mindfulness and listening skills, all of which can be applied to our own lives as well,” Julio said.
The volunteer told the Global Times that he feels he has become a better person after undertaking this line of volunteer work. “I receive a degree of personal satisfaction when I’ve helped someone in need, and I hope that someday, if I’m ever in such a position, maybe I will receive the same,” Julio said.
“The number of people calling Lifeline not just in Shanghai but from other parts of the world has significantly increased over the 13 years of operating this essential service,” Horenko said.
A foreign operator speaks with a caller.
Volunteers of Lifeline Shanghai at work and during promotion activities