Opening doors

Aug 27th, 2009 | By | Category: August 27, 2009, Campus News, Issue

Portnoy tours China discussing mental health issues at four universities

A visiting scholar helped Bob Portnoy open doors to a summer of mental health discussions in China.

From June 15 to July 5, Portnoy, director of Counseling and Psychological Services, traveled to four universities in China, delivering psychology lectures and discussing mental health topics with young scholars and new colleagues.

“It was the opportunity of a lifetime,” said Portnoy. “I delivered lectures on a variety of topics and everyone was very receptive to what I had to say.”

During Mao Zedung’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1965 to 1968), psychology was completely shut off as a field of study in China. However, in recent years, the field has started to grow in importance.

“China has a really big problem with suicide,” said Portnoy. “They are the only country in the world that keeps track of statistics that has a suicide rate higher for women than men.”

Portnoy said Chinese women are four times more likely to commit suicide than male counterparts. In the United States, men are three times as likely to opt for suicide.

Bob Portnoy and son, Jarrett
Bob Portnoy, director of Counseling and Psychological Services, stands with his son, Jarrett, outside a pagoda in Xi’an, China. Portnoy was invited to discuss mental health issues with colleagues at four universities in China. The trip stemmed from a discussion with a visiting professor last year. Courtesy photo.

“If you talk in any official context with Chinese mental health folks or authorities, they will deny that it is a problem,” said Portnoy. “But the folks that work the front lines know it’s a problem and they are hungry for information.”

Portnoy said Chinese mental health officials were often apt to put his recommendations into practice immediately.

“One of the things that came up was many of their students would often switch to different therapists,” said Portnoy. “Here, we discourage changing therapists because people often run when they get to the difficult parts. That was something they never thought of and it’s now a policy that is being adopted in China.

“If I would have know the influence I was going to have, I would have approached topics in a different way.”

Dr. Li Yan, a scholar from Tsinghua University in Beijing who worked in the UNL CAPS program last year, set up Portnoy’s visit. His lectures were given at Tsinghua University, Harbin Engineering University, Xi’an Jiaotong University and the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China in Chendu.

Along with the lectures, Portnoy also visited a handful of historic sites. His son, Jarrett, also went along on the trip.

Through the journey, Portnoy was amazed by the generosity of the Chinese people. He said their sense of community and acceptance will help them advance quickly in the field of psychology.

“Building a sense of community is one of the ways we try to make UNL a healthier place,” said Portnoy. “Chinese society is ideally suited for this, they already care and look out for each other. That is an element that will help them overcome the stigma that seeing a psychologist means you are crazy.”

Portnoy remains in contact with mental health professionals and students in China. He has already been invited back for more lectures and plans to return.

— By Troy Fedderson, University Communications

Tags: , , , ,

Leave Comment