Anniversary of pop icon Leslie Cheung’s death sparks concerns about depression in China

Qin Chen
·4-min read

A growing conversation about mental health, sparked by the 18th anniversary of the death of a music icon, highlighted an unmet need for accessible and affordable mental health care in China.

On April 1, 2003, Leslie Cheung, a Canto-pop superstar, award-winning actor and gay icon, committed suicide after suffering from severe depression.

It was always a poignant moment to commemorate the musical legend, but this year, people also openly talked about their own mental health.

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Fans lay flowers to honour deceased pop star Leslie Cheung in 2021. Photo: Sam Tsang
Fans lay flowers to honour deceased pop star Leslie Cheung in 2021. Photo: Sam Tsang

“When I was living with severe depression, every time I mention it to my loved ones, they would always shut me down and tell me to stop overthinking,” said a Weibo commentator.

Another person wrote, “No clinical diagnose, but I am very certain that I was living with depression for a while. During that time, I felt anxious and felt like the whole world was working against me. No matter what I did, I could not accomplish my goals.”

Christina Wang, a mental health counsellor in Shanghai, said, “Many Chinese people feel they have to have depression to go to a therapist. That should not be the case.”

Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui in a still from ‘Rouge’ (1988), directed by Stanley Kwan. Photo: Handout
Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui in a still from ‘Rouge’ (1988), directed by Stanley Kwan. Photo: Handout

Depression patients need both medication and psychotherapy, but most Chinese people are forced to choose between two unideal plans.

Patients could either go to public hospitals, where resources are often strained and typically only prescribe medicines for treatment, or pay out of pocket for expensive private counselling sessions.

Therapists in China cannot prescribe psychotropic medications according to law. They can only refer patients to hospitals for medical treatment. Wang said some therapists are reluctant to do that for fear of losing the clients.

“Not every hospital offers psychotherapy. If they do, the therapists are usually seeing multiple patients a day. It is also difficult to book an appointment,” Wang said. “A lot of people become depressed due to their financial situation. They cannot afford the treatment. And this becomes a vicious cycle.”

A session with the public hospital usually costs around 200 yuan (US$30), but a session with Wang is four times the price, 800 yuan (US$121). Depression patients usually need 10 to fifteen sessions, making it a financial burden.

Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-wai starred in Wong Kar-wai’s ‘Happy Together,’ which is considered a landmark LGBTQ movie. Photo: Block 2 Pictures and Jet Tone Contents
Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-wai starred in Wong Kar-wai’s ‘Happy Together,’ which is considered a landmark LGBTQ movie. Photo: Block 2 Pictures and Jet Tone Contents

Plus, she said, “some unethical therapists diagnose people with mild depression even without onset symptoms to convince them to continue with therapy.”

Cheung was one of the most influential artists in the history of Hong Kong. He dominated the Canto-pop airwaves for most of the 1980s before transitioning to become an award-winning actor.

He starred in the movie Farewell My Concubine, which won the Palme d’Or at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival. It is the only Hong Kong movie ever to win that award.

As noted in The South China Morning Post:

His untimely passing, on April 1, 2003, provoked the sort of shock and grief associated with the death of Princess Diana in 1997 – both remain cultural touchstones in different parts of the world.

In his last note, Cheung began with “Depression!!,” and then went on thanking his friends, boyfriend Daffy Tong, families, and others. He closed the note by asking, “I have done nothing wrong this life; so why is it like this?”

On Thursday, topics commemorating Leslie Cheung were trending on China’s Twitter-like Weibo.

Many fans addressed Cheung by his nickname “Gor Gor,” or big brother. News posts featuring Leslie Cheung and his same-sex partner, Daffy Tong, were popular.

The rise and fall of Leslie Cheung – the King of Cantopop’s story will forever bookend Hong Kong’s glory days

“We cannot forget him because he is good and he is real,” said one top-voted comment.

According to American Psychiatric Association, depression affects about one in 15 adults in a given year, and one in six people will experience depression at some time in their life.

The mental disease poses a greater risk in minority populations. Various research across the world shows that LGBTQ people are more than twice as likely to experience depression as their heterosexual peers.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, or you know someone who is, help is available. For Hong Kong, dial +852 2896 0000 for The Samaritans or +852 2382 0000 for Suicide Prevention Services. In the US, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on +1 800 273 8255. For a list of other nations’ helplines, see this page.

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