QINGDAO－Ma Yumei, in her 50s, has lived alone in a rental apartment in Qingdao, a coastal city in Shandong province, for more than three years, but she rarely dined in the community canteen until recently.
Ma's head and hands were badly burned in a fire in her teens.
"I was afraid that I would scare people, and I didn't want to have people staring at me, either," she said. Ma avoided leaving her room, and only went to buy some essentials in the early morning or at night, wearing a hat and a mask.
"I rarely talked with people, let alone made friends," Ma said.
Her situation began to improve last year after the local government launched a program offering psychological relief to those in need among low-income groups.
"People with low incomes are often troubled by illnesses and disabilities, which negatively affect their mental health. Besides material relief, psychological support is also needed," said Lyu Yongcui, deputy head of Qingdao's Chengyang district.
The local government conducted a psychological health survey last year among the low-income group in the city, defined as those with a monthly income under 660 yuan ($95), and psychologists found Ma to be in severe depression.
"Ma told us that her parents had passed away and she has no children. She had even thought of suicide, as she didn't want to hide in her apartment anymore," said Wang Wenhua, who heads a local organization of social workers.
Wang's organization helps the local government in offering psychological support for people like Ma. Last year, more than 1,000 people were identified to receive psychological relief in Chengyang district. Through the initiative, the local government provided online counseling and sent more than 600 psychologists, social workers and volunteers to improve the psychological health of the group.
In Ma's case, Wang's team soon helped her get rid of her suicidal thoughts, but overcoming the obstacle of going out in public proved to be more difficult.
Wang and her colleagues often go to chat with Ma, help her clean her apartment and bring dumplings and moon cakes to share with her. Gradually, they have grown closer.
To make it less awkward for Ma to shop alone, the social workers accompanied her to go out in the daytime without her hat and mask.
"After several trips, I found I didn't scare others and no one stared at me," Ma said. "Now I go out at noon to enjoy the sunshine."
Before the introduction of the program, 35 percent of the selected low-income people were unwilling to participate in public activities, 65 percent felt inferior and anxious, and 67 percent had difficulty sleeping, according to the local government survey.
Since the program began, those numbers have dropped to 15 percent, 26 percent and 34 percent, respectively.
Ma still has not overcome her fear of participating in various community activities, like group dancing and singing, but Wang and her colleagues are confident.
"We'll take her there soon," Wang said.
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