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September 25, 2017

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Young writer's death puts a spotlight on attitudes to mental health

By Christine Chou -- "She just disappeared from class. There were rumors flying around about where she might have gone. We thought she might have gone to the U.S. to look for (writing) inspiration. That was the last we heard of her until last week — when news of her death spread all over the country," a former medical school classmate of 26-year-old best-selling novelist Lin Yi-han (林奕含) told me in the wake of the young writer's apparent suicide.

More than 10 days have passed since news of Lin's death broke over national media outlets and on social media in Taiwan.

The writer's parents claimed the cause of her suicide was not only her depressive disorder, as widely reported, but her being raped by her cram school teacher in her teens — a traumatic experience that was the basis of her debut novel about a 13-year-old girl whose mental health breaks down after she is seduced by her teacher.

"The book was not fiction, but a true reflection of her personal story," her parents said.

Arum Tsai, who claims to have been a friend of Lin, previously said that even the closest family members cannot speak for Lin and that people should stop issuing or sharing statements on her behalf.

"Nothing counts unless it is spoken or written from her: Whether the main character is a reflection of her or not, whether her pain is because of being raped or depressed. No one can be her spokesperson," Tsai said.

The incident has revealed a general lack of awareness regarding mental health and shed light on the flaws in Taiwan's education system and its legal protection and support for sexual assault victims.

It has also triggered an internet manhunt to track down the alleged perpetrator. Tang Hsin-pei, a psychiatrist at Tainan Municipal An-Nan Hospital, said he regretted seeing the manhunt steering the focus away from the central issue.

Tang, as cited in United Daily News, said the attention ought to be on devising better ways to "help mend injured hearts."

"How families and the public sector, including health, education and legal agencies, can work together to help sexual assault victims go through the pain, open up about what happened and rebuild trust … such discussions will help prevent similar cases from occurring in the future," Tang said.

Psychiatrists' Warning

Tang also said many of his patients had felt forced to recall their own painful experiences due to the highly publicized incident.

Lai Te-jen, president of the Taiwanese Society of Psychiatry, cautioned against rash comments made in the aftermath of Lin's death, saying reports and discussions about her may bring out distressing thoughts and emotions — and even result in suicidal thoughts — among people who had gone through similar experiences.

"Don't carelessly label people or simplify problems," the Taiwanese Society of Psychiatry said in a statement.

"It's difficult to really know someone, and putting labels on people is a simple way for us to understand one another. But if the entire society starts to label a certain person in a mad craze, refusing to deeply consider the structure underlying an issue, this society can never find from its many mistakes and suffering the power to move forward."

Lai said Taiwanese society tended to react strongly to injustice, but warned that inflammatory comments could trigger anxiety and affect the mood of those suffering from depression.

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