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Coco Lee's death prompts discussion in China around concealed mental illness

“Everyone should cherish those in front of you who are always outgoing and bubbly because they may be internally experiencing hardship and pain,” one social media user wrote.
Coco Lee performing in Beijing,
Coco Lee performs in Beijing on Dec. 17, 2011.Visual China Group via Getty Images file

The recent death of Coco Lee, a critically acclaimed international singer and songwriter, has prompted much-needed discussions around mental health in China, many social media users are saying. 

Lee had been dealing with depression for years before dying by suicide at 48, her sisters Carol and Nancy Lee said in a statement on social media Wednesday. Many fans said they were shocked at the news about the star, known for her work as the voice of Fa Mulan in the Mandarin version of Disney’s “Mulan,” as well as her decadeslong singing career. Her supporters pointed to the often hidden signs of mental health issues. 

“Everyone should cherish those in front of you who are always outgoing and bubbly because they may be internally experiencing hardship and pain,” one Weibo user with the username Mochuan wrote, according to an NBC News translation. “They may present their best and warmest side to everyone else while facing the dark abyss all alone.” 

Fans, friends and others took to social media platforms Weibo and WeChat to discuss depression and suicide. Many brought up Lee’s iconic smile, saying she likely faced pressures to maintain public appearances as a celebrity. 

“The complexity of life is often overlooked in narratives about public figures, and it’s easy to think we know someone entirely based on a few glowing bits and pieces,” Weibo user Li Songwei said. “That’s why everyone was so shocked by Coco’s death. If she were to support the self that meets the public’s expectations, she had to remain cut off from a part of her real experience.”

They also stressed the importance of seeking help. 

“Depression is a disease, not an ordinary bad mood. This is not a condition that can be resolved by taking a walk outside—it’s disease that needs professional treatment,” one social media user who goes by Doctor Concord Mr. Do said of Lee.

Not only did fans sound off on the situation, the National Health Commission also posted information about depression on WeChat following Lee’s death, encouraging Chinese citizens to assess their own mental health and identify signs of depression. 

“Depression is not like a cold. It cannot simply be cured without treatment,” the statement read. 

The subject of mental health has long been taboo in China. During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, communist leader Mao Zedong outlawed the practice of psychiatry, as mental illness was seen as a “lack of appreciation for the class struggle,” a report in the Canadian Medical Association Journal said. Today, those who do contend with mental illness often face rampant discrimination. 

“Public stigma have negative effects on the lives of people with mental illness, by preventing them from pursuing vocational, housing, and healthcare goals, and holding them back from seeking treatment and affecting the quality of delivered healthcare,” a 2020 study of mental health stigma from journal BioMed Central Psychiatry said. 

But the Chinese government has in recent years put a larger emphasis on mental health due to widespread depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues that emerged during the coronavirus pandemic. Cities set up hotlines and other services, and residents began to feel more comfortable asking for help.