In one photo, 23-year-old photographer Liu Yuyang captured a special moment between Mei Lin and her two granddaughters. The 83-year-old woman is smiling as one granddaughter leans down to give her a kiss and the other poses for the camera.
But Mei Lin’s eyes give away how tired she is. Her hair has completely grayed, and her face is deeply lined. At her age, Mei Lin is supposed to live relatively carefree. Instead, she has to support her family of four: her daughter, son and two granddaughters — all of whom are mentally ill.
“Can you imagine an 83-year-old lady having to take care of four mentally ill patients?” asks Liu. “She usually picks up medicine for her [family], goes shopping for food and makes dinner.” And when they relieve themselves on the house floor, she does the cleaning.
The photo is part of Liu’s latest project, called At Home With Mental Illness, which in July won him an Ian Parry scholarship recognizing young photographers. He went to two cities in the Guangdong province and documented the daily lives of six families struggling with mental health patients — a group, Liu says, that is too often ignored by the Chinese government and stigmatized by the public.
China has a staggering 173 million people with some sort of diagnosable mental disorder, according to a 2012 study in the journal Lancet. Of those, 158 million have never received any treatment. And China averages one psychiatrist for every 83,000 people. So many patients depend on their families for help.
“We can’t see the mental illness patients in society. You won’t have a friend or a classmate who is mentally ill so I think they are kind of invisible in our lives,” Liu says. “They don’t walk on the streets or go to the [places] you go to.”
The project started with a newsletter he received earlier this year while working as a photographer for Tencent, one of China’s largest media companies. It was from the Chronicle Disease Prevention Center in a small Guangdong town highlighting its efforts to help families dealing with mental illness. “Once I read the newsletter, I found that [the patients] and their families live a real life, so I wanted to find their real life and record what they do every day and what their relationships are like,” he says.
Liu wanted to capture both the good and the bad: photos of children struggling with mentally ill parents, young adults trapped at home and an incredible sense of familial love and support. “I don’t think people realize the efforts that family members try to [put in] to take care the patient. I know [Mei Lin] loves her daughter and granddaughters, but it’s so hard,” Liu tells NPR. “She could have enjoyed her life. So I think of it as kind of a tragedy.”
During our interview, Liu directs me to a 2002 photo book called The Chain, by Taiwanese photographer Chang Chien-Chi. It displays portraits taken in the late 1990s of 700 psychiatric patients. Each person wore stark clothing; the subjects were chained in pairs. That bleak imagery is how the public often thinks of the mentally ill, Liu says.
Even Liu himself was guilty of thinking that way.
“I actually thought before taking this photo essay that the mentally ill patients were like monsters,” he admits. For him, the project brought back memories of one of his first encounters with a mentally ill person. It’s a memory he’s not proud of.
Liu was in primary school at the time. He often walked past a man who looked as if he were about 50. “He was very thin with no hair,” Liu recalls. “He would throw rubbish at the kids [passing by]. I saw him attack a kid from the primary school.”
“This is why I thought of them as monsters,” he says. Most people just ignored the man. Liu admits to making fun of him. “Now I feel sorry about that,” he says. “Now I realize that they are normal people, just with a disease that they [don’t have a choice over].”
Liu plans to continue covering mental health in China and hopes that the exposure will lead to some sort of change — even for just one family. People who’ve seen Liu’s photos have donated $600 to help one of the families. He hopes to raise more money as he continues the project with the $5,400 scholarship he just won.
“This is not finished yet,” he says.