Coco Lee: Death of pop icon sparks mental health discussion in China

Pop singer Coco Lee’s death has shocked the Chinese-speaking world, and sparked discussions of mental health issues on China’s social media.

Lee passed away after being in a coma since attempting to take her own life on the weekend, according to a Facebook post from her older sisters Carol and Nancy. She was 48.

They also disclosed that she had been suffering from depression in recent years.

A household name in China, the Hong-Kong born American singer was remembered for her electrifying energy and megawatt smile on stage and in front of the public. And many people were in disbelief after the news broke late at night on Wednesday.

“I can’t believe this. She was always the sunshine girl who loved to sing, dance and smile,” a comment liked by more than 3,000 times on the country’s Twitter-like platform Weibo reads.

“Is there still any happy person in this world then?” said another top-liked comment.

As tributes poured in, many focused on the mental health issue her family had mentioned.

Hashtags such as “how close depression is near you”, “symptoms of depression” have been trending on different online platforms, state media outlets like CCTV, People’s Daily and China Daily have put out content to raise people’s awareness of depression and mental illness.

“People can feel this has apparently become a more and more pressing matter,” says Dr Jia Miao, assistant professor of sociology at Shanghai New York University.

It is symptomatic of an alarming situation facing China: a rapidly growing number of people suffering from mental health issues, and a medical network not yet fully ready to cope.

Depression, or any mental illness, has long carried stigma in Chinese society. The Chinese word for mental illness, ‘jingshen bing’ sounds similar to a derogatory term for a mad person, ‘shenjing bing’, and people who have mental health issues would always be seen as someone out of their minds.

Chinese patients were largely underdiagnosed, according to Ke Ren, founder of social media account “Depression Research Institute”.

“We would hear things like ‘someone didn’t get a good grade at school so they jumped off the building’,”says Ms Ren. “But we never got a chance to ask those people ‘what happened?’, and what kind of help they needed.”