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Researchers aim to better handle mental illnesses

Updated: 2013-12-17 00:02
By Wang Hongyi in Shanghai ( China Daily)

Shanghai has set up a key mental health research laboratory to intensify efforts to diagnose and treat severe mental illnesses, which affect nearly 1 percent of China's population.

"Over the past 20 years, there has been little progress in the field," Xu Yifeng, president of the Shanghai Mental Health Center, said in a recent interview.

"The question of how to combine basic science and clinical research has not been solved."

The new lab, opened in November, will focus on solving a bottleneck in the study of severe mental illnesses through a combination of multiple disciplines, such as molecular and cell biology, brain imaging and bioinformatics, a method for processing biological data using computer science and mathematics.

"So far, there are still no reliable biological indicators in the diagnosis of mental disorders," Xu said. "Treatment mainly relies on symptomatic treatment, which often leads to a high rate of recurrence."

He said one of the main goals of the lab is to find a specific physical trait for the diagnosis and treatment of psychotic disorders.

According to the National Health and Family Planning Commission, the prevalence rate of severe mental illnesses is 0.96 percent.

Shanghai surpasses the national average with 1.07 percent, according to the city's Mental Health Center.

Severe mental illnesses, or psychotic disorders, include schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder and mental retardation.

People with such conditions may find it difficult to control their behavior.

Police have handled a string of violent attacks involving people suffering from mental illnesses in recent years.

In 2011, a farmer who was suspected of having a mental illness killed a young girl and three adults with an axe as they walked to a preschool.

In December 2012, a 36-year-old man in Henan province stabbed an elderly neighbor and then slashed 22 children at a primary school.

And in October this year, a man in Shanghai's Pudong district attacked a group of people on the road with a knife, leaving one dead and five injured. Police said the man had a history of mental illness.

Severe mental illnesses have a close relation to genetic and other biological factors, and experts say as living conditions improve and life spans grow longer, the number of patients with such disorders will increase.

The treatment of severe mental diseases depends on the cause of the psychosis, but in China, it is mainly based on semeiology, a form of psychotherapy that involves controlling symptoms with drugs and therapeutic counseling.

"Less understanding of the causes of mental illness means limited treatment and successful recoveries," Xu said. "Furthering studies of severe mental illnesses has become even more urgent."

In 2005, the former ministry of health began providing treatment for patients with serious mental illnesses, as well as offering medical services to impoverished people suffering from such diseases.

This service has been one of the basic public health service programs since 2009.

By March this year, about 3.5 million people with serious mental illnesses had been covered under the project in 226 cities and prefectures in 30 provincial regions across the country, according to the National Health and Family Planning Commission.

Mental health issues are still a big public health and social problem in China as more people suffer from mental disorders, said Deng Haihua, spokesman for the National Health and Family Planning Commission, referring to a draft guideline on China's mental health work for 2012-15.

Under the guideline, about 70 percent of patients diagnosed with severe mental disease are expected to receive formal supervision while 60 percent are targeted to receive regular treatment by 2015.

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