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Mental health important for poverty governance

CHEN XUEFENG | 2021-01-13
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

A volunteer interviews a villager to evaluate his psychological health, as part of a broader psychological poverty alleviation campaign carried out by the Psychological Department of the Beibei Association for Science and Technology in Chongqing Municipality. Photo: CHONGQING ASSOCIATION FOR SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY


Recently, China accomplished its poverty alleviation target for the new era according to schedule, achieving a significant victory in the fight against poverty. However, the problem of imbalanced and inadequate development remains prominent, and the task of consolidating the achievements of poverty reduction is still daunting. In this largest-scale and most intensive anti-poverty battle in human history, many creative and unique actions have been taken. They conform to China’s actual conditions while providing referential solutions for global poverty governance. 
 
Among other solutions, building community-level public psychological service systems, which aim to alleviate mental health issues related to poverty, increase poor people’s confidence in their own ability to lift themselves out of poverty, offer educational and technical support, and avoid the problem of a return to poverty, can play a crucial role. 
 
Poverty related mental health issues
While implementing poverty alleviation practices, many studies were conducted, which probed into poor people’s mental state. The research initially focused on individual psychological health, cognitive features, decision-making behaviors and the like. Gradually, studies were extended to mental health issues on different levels, such as individual psychology, families, policy, and culture. 
Individually, studies have found a series of typical psychological features among the poor population, such as the sense of relative deprivation, long-term stress, anxiety, self-abasement, isolation, reliance, fear of risks and competition, and lack of vigor and confidence. Poverty restricts not only possibilities, but perspectives, long-term vison, and decision making. Bad decisions will further aggravate poverty and lead to a vicious cycle. 
 
When analyzing family units, research shows that poor families generally suffer from an incomplete family structure, unstable family relations, a preference of boys to girls, and early marriage and childbearing. Poor families care more about consumption and expenditure, arguing that too much spending is the cause of family poverty, while non-poor families regard income as more important, maintaining that insufficient incomes bring about financial distress. The relationship with poverty as well as the awareness and action to eliminate poverty and seek wealth varies greatly. Poor families usually don’t attach importance to education. Their extreme unwillingness to invest in education poses a big obstacle to preventing the intergenerational transmission of poverty. 
 
On the social and cultural levels, China’s poverty alleviation policy has gone through many stages. The subject of poverty relief has evolved from the inside out, and from individuals to society. The mental state of the poor has accordingly undergone several stages, ranging from shame and guilt, to self-exclusion, and eventually self-acceptance and rationalization. 
 
This stabilizes the culture of poverty, fostering a fixed mental model in poor people, through living a long life of impoverishment. If those who have shaken off poverty are still stuck in their previous mental state, then this trauma makes them susceptible to a return to poverty when faced with development barriers. Their vulnerable mental health state is likely to lead to conflict and disputes and cause unanticipated problems or social incidents.  
 
Poverty has multi-layered implications, so poverty alleviation measures should also function on multiple levels. In poverty governance, attention should be paid to alleviating both material and psychological poverty. In terms of psychological poverty alleviation, it is essential to provide mental health resources for individuals, promoting their psychological health and improving their decision-making abilities, while building an environment that encompasses policy, culture, regional poverty eradication, and rural vitalization. 
 
Public psychological services
The report to the 19th CPC National Congress emphasized intensifying construction of public psychological service systems in order to upgrade the social governance system. Improving the modern rural governance system is also key to the Rural Vitalization Strategic Program (2018–2022). 
 
The Institute of Psychology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) has engaged in continuous scientific research and implementation of psychological poverty alleviation practices in Hure Banner of the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region. In doing so, researchers gradually recognized that poverty governance is crucial to social governance and building a public psychological service system is of great significance to poverty governance as well as social governance. 
 
In the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021–2025) for National Economic and Social Development and the Long-Range Objectives Through the Year 2035, the CPC Central Committee defined the further enhancement of state governance efficiency, which includes substantial improvements in social governance, particularly in terms of community-level governance, as one of the major objectives of economic and social development during the 14th Five-Year Plan period. 
 
Complicated social issues derived from poverty, whether individual psychological health problems or social conflicts caused by poverty, are concrete structural problems that social governance or community-level governance must face and solve. Poverty is not an individual problem, and the mental health issues directly related to poverty are not all about psychological health. 
 
After eliminating absolute poverty, relative poverty will remain for a long time. Relatively poor people also need a good quality of life, and demand democracy, the rule of law, fairness, justice, and safety. Their psychological needs will become increasingly diverse. This is an objective fact that policymakers engaged in poverty governance and social governance must respect. 
 
Providing public psychological services is a major project for social governance. As a modern governance philosophy, social governance differs greatly from traditional social administration ideas. It advocates for shared governance by multiple subjects, democratic consultation, sophisticated governance, and resolving social frictions, calling for the rules of individual and group psychology to be followed. 
 
Both poverty governance and social governance are comprised of people-centered policies with a full grasp of the mental needs of different groups. They necessitate the integration of social mentality mechanisms into the formulation and implementation of public policies to meet ordinary people’s mental health needs and increase their senses of gain, happiness, and security through different levels of psychological services, thereby modernizing the governance system and capacity. 
 
Building the public psychological service system systemizes specific measures for the psychological services listed above. In the context of social governance, efforts should be made to provide public and social psychological services, to guide social mentalities and strengthen psychological construction in all respects, on the individual, organizational, societal, and cultural levels. This undertaking must be based on the public’s mental health needs, with the aim of effectively raising individual psychological health qualities, promoting the healthy development of organizations, and advancing the modernization of social governance systems and capacity. Therefore, facilitating the building of the community-level psychological service system is vital to the long-term goals of poverty eradication and rural vitalization. 
 
Effective models
In light of typical mental health needs in impoverished communities, a research team at the Institute of Psychology at CAS applied research outcomes on public psychological services to social practices of poverty alleviation and rural vitalization, and found several effective models for psychological poverty alleviation. 
 
The first model concerns mental health while children are growing. The key to eliminating the intergenerational transmission of poverty is to cultivate a scientific approach to early childhood education among children’s parents and teachers. To this end, the research team designed training courses for the two groups, implemented a “parent-child joint reading program,” piloted the evaluation of children’s growth at some kindergartens, and even launched an online “psychological communication” course during the COVID-19 epidemic. So far, 1,500 families and hundreds of teachers received the training or participated in related programs, substantively strengthening their ability to support scientific early childhood education, parent-child joint reading, and communication skills. 
 
Second, improving residents’ mental resilience presents a formidable challenge. The research team focused on enhancing the sustainable development abilities of poor populations. Given the stress-induced short-sightedness and restricted perspectives of poor people, researchers have created a measurement tool to assess the sustainable development abilities and green consciousness of the population. Surveys and experiments are being conducted to form targeted intervention and training plans based on the research.
 
The research team values both the physical and mental health of impoverished populations. Through standardized training, village doctors are obligated to safeguard the physical health of farmers, while serving as watchmen of rural disadvantaged groups’ spiritual homeland. Researchers have designed a psychological and physical intervention system which measures rural residents’ blood pressure, electrocardio and urine samples, and monitors depressive disorders, and dementia through portable instruments, so as to prevent and treat rural residents’ mental health problems and simultaneously promote their physical and psychological health. 
 
In addition, an emergency psychological assistance model has been built, which targets key or special groups and combines psychological services and specific needs like dispute settlement in community-level social governance. The research team instituted a psychological counseling room at the dispute settlement center of Inner Mongolia’s Hure Banner to provide preemptive psychological counseling and assistance to people in need. 
 
The above psychological poverty alleviation measures are concrete public psychological services. Nonetheless, the priority of building the public psychological service system is to effectively integrate limited psychological service resources within specific regions through institutional innovation, thus aligning the psychological services demand with the supply, and combining related measures with community-level social governance. New ideas and approaches should be adopted to tackle difficulties in poverty governance and innovate social governance practices based on people’s mental needs, in order to provide referential Chinese proposals for global poverty governance. 
 
Chen Xuefeng is a research fellow and deputy director of the Institute of Psychology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.