When people think of the Community Services Center, they often think of what British author and classical musician Richard Saunders calls “that whole Tianmu tai-tai scene”. Indeed, the Center is often associated with survival Chinese classes, cross-cultural orientations for newcomers, and even cooking lessons. Located in Tianmu, and having links with the international schools, the Center certainly is a convenient neighborhood fixture for Tianmu expats.
But Saunders, who has published numerous books and articles through the Center, also says “It’s much more than that. It’s much better than that. People should really use it more.”
The Center’s primary work is mental and emotional health counseling, issues so private that they are rarely talked about publicly. But on the occasion of the Center’s 30th anniversary, as it is still struggling to make ends meet, perhaps it’s time to take a closer look at this fascinating and vital Taipei institution and how it has evolved to fill a painful need in the expat community.
“Nice place you’ve got here!” I said to Adam McMillan, the director of the Community Services Center, which has three floors of offices, counseling rooms, and even a teaching kitchen. “It is now!” he said, “But it was in pretty bad shape when I first took over in 2012.” The carpet was moldy, the furniture old, and the whole place badly in need of renovation. The problem then (and now and always) was money. “We were broke!” he said, and so he had to soldier on with the endless quest for donations. He very gratefully received 300,000NT worth of furniture from IKEA. (Lots of DIY work on that one!) McMillan also secured a targeted donation from a multi-national company to pay for a complete renovation.
The Center conducts an average of 5000 counseling sessions per year by highly qualified psychologists, who help people with anxiety, depression, marital problems, parenting issues, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and substance abuse.
“We’ve helped thousands of people. We’ve saved lives” said McMillan. “I see people’s faces a month to six weeks after they’ve started the counseling. Many of them make full recoveries. It’s nice to watch.”
This good work done by the Center got started because of a ghastly tragedy.
Back in 1985, three boys – students at an international school – walked into an area of abandoned and overgrown military housing in Tianmu. They got stoned on cough syrup containing a now-banned psychoactive ingredient. Then two of the boys beat the other one to death with a baseball bat.
The body was found the next day by a man out taking his dog for a walk. When the news broke, the expat community was completely stunned.
In the aftermath, expat community leaders – business, religious and AIT – met to figure out the implications of this horrible incident. What emerged was that there was a foreign teen drug problem bigger than anyone knew, and a lack of community resources to deal with it. More meetings, and then a stroke of luck. In 1986, thanks to the US State Department, they found a model to emulate: The Community Services Association of Cairo, an expatriate mental health program started in Egypt by two Americans, Joel Wallach and Gale Metcalf. They were contacted, which eventually resulted in them moving to Taipei to become The Center’s first directors. On August 1st, 1987, the “Community Center” became officially operational under the legal auspices of the Taiwan Adventist Hospital.
In 1993, it was agreed that the Center was “growed up” enough to become its own entity, the “Taipei International Community Services Cultural and Education Foundation” in Chinese (國際社區服務文教中心) or in English, the Community Services Center. They were permitted as a foundation on February 13th, 1993, and registered by the Taipei District Court on April 1st of that year. No fooling!
As the Center conducted its work, the whole range of mental and emotional health issues affecting the expat community gradually became clear. Of course, any population of people is going to have a certain amount of these problems. But for expats, the situation is more complicated. For one thing, studies have shown that expats have a higher incidence of mental and emotional health issues, especially anxiety and depression. Dealing with a foreign culture can be a genuine stress factor, especially if one’s spouse has some resistance to moving abroad, or the kids have a hard time fitting into their new country after being yanked away from their peer group.
And if things do go sideways, who can you turn to? Your familiar network of extended family and old friends back home aren’t there to keep a friendly eye on you. And local counselors may not have the cross-cultural experience to make a good connection with you. So who’s going to give you the tough-love advice, the shoulder to cry on, or organize an intervention for you when you are far from home? Well, maybe the Center will.
McMillan told me about one case the Center handled. About a year ago, a European woman just stopped showing up for work. Her friends were worried about her, but she wasn’t answering the door or her phone. However, she trusted the local Li Zhang (neighborhood leader). What she said to him worried him, so he called the foreign affairs police, who called her country’s trade office (de facto embassy), who called McMillan at the Center. So, out he went to her place. With the Li Zhang with him, he got her to come out and talk. Her behavior was very odd, recounts McMillan, as she avoided making eye contact with him. But then she said, “Mr. Director, occupant conditioning, and ocular implants!” Clearly the woman was suffering from a psychiatric condition. Eventually, she let the foreign affairs police drive her to a hospital and she was able to get the care she needed. She also got free outpatient housing from Taipei City. Her condition stabilized, and a family member came out from Europe and took her home. A happy ending!
McMillan says this case is now cited in Taiwan as a textbook model of how cooperation between city services, foreign affairs police, the health department, together with institutions like trade offices and the Center, can help deal with expat health crises.
Urgent cases are dealt with almost once a week at the center. And cases like this show that, at 30 years of age, the Center is coming of age, in more ways than one. By all accounts, McMillan’s management approach has helped this. McMillan, who hails from Tennessee, first came to Taiwan to study Chinese back in 1987, but was not connected to the Center then. He came back in 1998, and worked at various engineering and marketing management jobs as he raised his family. Then there was an opening at the Center. Sick of long commutes to Hsinchu, he went for the job. He brought his tech industry experience with him. “I’m very data driven,” he told me. When he first started, records were poor. But now he uses special software for health care institutions to store and crunch the numbers.
Americans account for 36% of those treated, and Taiwanese for another 24%. People from Europe are at 14%, and those from Asia outside of Taiwan also represent 14%. A total of about 40 nationalities have been counseled.
In terms of age groups, 26% are under 18, and a total of 60% are between 23 and 50 years old, although McMillan says that they have counseled people from 3 to 91 years old!
The magazine Centered on Taipei, edited by long-time Center stalwart Sue Babcock, is published 10 times per year, and puts out 2230 hard copies per issue. The web version of COT gets a monthly average of 325 page views, with a reading time norm of just under 5 minutes.
Some other important figures: the Center’s annual budget is about 23 million NTD per year. In terms of how much of that money is on programs, McMillan says that it’s a whopping 75%, way above the 68% that’s considered the “gold standard” for NGOs. The bottom line though is a 6 million NTD operating deficit per year. The need for funds is relentless. That’s why the Center has their annual charity auction, which will be on Friday October 20th this year. So sign up for that and give them your support. You never know when you – or someone you care for – might need theirs.