Freud coming into fashion in China

By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 11, 2010; 1:07 AM

BEIJING - On a recent morning, Danille Drake flipped on her computer and sat down to wait in the home office of her two-story Bethesda house. As the screen flickered to life, she explained how she has spent her whole career learning and practicing the teachings of Sigmund Freud. And how, for decades, she has watched the slow death of his theories, abandoned in favor of antidepressant drugs and newer treatments.

But recently, Drake said, she has discovered a corner of the world where whole flocks of students just can't get enough of Freud. The computer bleeped and a grinning, bespectacled Chinese doctor popped up on the screen, waving hello.

This, Drake said, was Wan Jingjing, 35, a psychologist in Hubei province. And Psychoanalysis 101 was now in session.

For the past two years, a small army of therapists in the United States has been getting up at ungodly hours and staying up late into the night to teach the fundamentals of Freud to counterparts on the other side of the world. Their efforts have raised the practice of psychoanalysis, a type of theory developed by Freud a century ago, to new heights in China, a country where mental health has long been an underdeveloped branch of medicine.

The success of their intensive two-year training program, called the China American Psychoanalytic Alliance (CAPA), has been the result of several overlapping factors: Chinese doctors - whose training has been limited to drug prescription - are hungry for new theories and techniques to treat patients. Meanwhile, Freudian psychoanalysts in the United States -- often seen as outdated, even irrelevant - are equally keen to gain new ground in China. Connecting the two sides is Skype - an Internet video conferencing technology that didn't even exist until seven years ago.

In many ways, the mental health field in China is especially ripe for growth. Top government officials and experts have expressed concern that increasing social pressures in China - more competition at almost every stage of life, a widening wealth gap and quickly changing moral values - are straining people's capacity to cope.

A spate of inexplicable incidents this year - in which men rushed into kindergartens and randomly stabbed children - prompted promises by the government to shore up mental health services in China. There are economic ramifications as well, highlighted this summer by a string of high-profile suicides at factories producing electronic parts for Apple products, which sent business leaders searching for solutions.

For decades, China has lacked the infrastructure to deal with such problems. Compared with most developed countries, including the United States, China has just a fraction of the mental health workers per capita needed to treat patients. Complicating matters is a checkered relationship between the practitioners and government, which has been accused at times of using mental health as an excuse to imprison political opponents or to quell protests. But with prosperity and an expanding middle class, China is starting to develop a market for the long-term and often expensive therapy required by psychoanalysis.

Next week, the International Psychoanalytical Association will hold its first major conference in Beijing. And already, budding psychoanalytical associations are starting to form in China's urban centers.

The most organized push, however, has come from CAPA.

The two-year intensive training program is run out of the cluttered New York apartment of Elise Snyder. The 76-year-old psychoanalyst was nearing retirement age nine years ago when she presented a paper at a conference in China. During her visit, she was overwhelmed by the eagerness of Chinese doctors to know more. Many begged for formal training in Freudian psychotherapy.

Now, as most therapists her age are winding down, she remains a whirlwind of activity, calling, teaching, shooting off e-mails and matching students in China with new U.S. supervisors. Her living room serves as CAPA's makeshift office. An intern for the nonprofit occupies her dining room table.

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