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Week Abroad with Governor Sparks Professor's Interest in Addressing China's Mental Health Crisis

May 26, 2011 — When a close family friend and businessman in China first invited Kim Penberthy and her husband on a trip to his homeland, she had no idea she'd been handed an opportunity to spend a week this May with Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell's delegation on economic development and job creation.

"I'd never been to China, so I jumped at the chance," said Penberthy, associate professor in psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences in the University of Virginia School of Medicine. "But when I learned we'd be traveling with the governor and his team, I thought, 'How can I turn this visit into a professional mission?'"

Penberthy had read an article in a January edition of The New Yorker, titled "Freud in China," that explored the growing demand for Western psychotherapy among the citizens of this communist state – a country steeped in secrecy, where mental illness traditionally has carried a stigma of individual weakness.

"The historic approach for treating mental illness in China has centered largely on traditional healing remedies," Penberthy said. "But in the last several decades, China has seen the explosion of a number of Western capitalist practices – a greater acquisition of wealth and personal gain and a growing self-centric approach to their way of life. With these changes you see the upside – and the downside – of a capitalist society. For example, the Chinese people are experiencing an increase in stress, substance abuse and other mental health issues."

Chinese physicians have begun prescribing more Western medications to treat mental health issues, but they are eager to find new therapeutic measures to meet the growing need, Penberthy said.

"We know from a great deal of Western research that such approaches as cognitive behavioral therapy and evidence-based treatments are extremely effective, but the traditional Chinese belief system has traditionally run counter to talk therapy and discussing personal problems with others. Western medicine has begun to emerge more and more, but it's a long, difficult process given the cultural barriers," she said.

While Penberthy and other U.S. mental health practitioners realize this cultural hurdle, they have witnessed the growing demand for more effective types of mental health therapy in China. One of Penberthy's major goals was to make an initial foray into the need and interest among the Chinese people and practitioners for developing Western psychotherapy practices.

She spent a good part of her time in the cities of Shanghai, Xi'an and Beijing making initial contacts and speaking with professionals and citizens to assess the current situation and growth opportunities in her field.

"This will be the first of many visits to China where I plan to explore the possibilities to expand mental health practices in the country," Penberthy said. "In future visits, I plan on making connections with medical schools and forging collaborations with other professionals to assist them in implementing a psychotherapy routine to their training programs."

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