SCPKU faculty fellow shares research on drug use disorders in China



Anna Lembke, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Stanford University Medical Center, visited SCPKU for two weeks as a faculty fellow in July 2014.  Below are the highlights of a conversation Professor Lembke had with SCPKU in which she shares more details about her research and how SCPKU helped to advance her work in China.


Q: Describe your research and its connection to China

My research focuses on improving the lives of those with addictive disorders. I am especially interested in the intersection between health care systems and culture, and how this intersection impacts addiction treatment. I became interested in studying drug use disorders in China for a number of reasons. First, I spent a year after college living in China (1989-1990) teaching English as part of the Yale China Program. I have followed events in China with keen interest ever since. Second, the total number of drug users in China may be as high as 7 million, with China predicted to have the most heroin users of any country in the world within 5 years. I was curious to find out how China is addressing its burgeoning drug problem, and didn’t just want the “party line.” I wanted to learn about how people addicted to drugs in China are seeking and getting help.


Q: What got you interested in the study of addiction?

When I first began practicing psychiatry, I was not interested in treating addiction. But over time, I came to realize that if I didn’t treat my patients’ drug and alcohol problems, their other mental health issues were unlikely to improve. I also realized that in targeting and treating addiction, I could help patients transform their lives for the better, as well as the lives of those who love them.


Q: Why did you decide to apply for an SCPKU Faculty Fellowship?

SCPKU gave me the financial and logistical support to pursue a research project in China, an opportunity that would not have been possible without their help.


Q: How valuable was SCPKU's team in supporting your fellowship at SCPKU?

The team here at Stanford was helpful with drafting the initial proposal, creating the budget, which was especially challenging, due to my lack of familiarity with what things cost in China, and making contact with the SCPKU staff in Beijing. The team in Beijing was helpful in setting up temporary housing and meals in Beijing, as well as providing maps, information on how to take the subway, and logistical support getting back to the airport.


Q: What were your fellowship objectives and were they met? 

My fellowship objective was to interview treatment-seeking heroin users in China to learn more about the state of addiction treatment in China. My research assistant, Dr. Niushen Zhang, and I planned to publish our findings in a peer-reviewed journal.

We learned that individuals in China addicted to drugs experience intense social stigma. They are reluctant to utilize government-sponsored treatment, because of fear of loss of anonymity and the ensuing social and economic consequences that follow when they are publicly identified as “addicts,” not to mention the potential loss of their personal freedom. (Addicted persons in China are sent against their will to forced detention centers, or “rehabilitation through labor camps.”) As a result, drug addicted persons in China are deeply mistrusting of government-sponsored treatment, and willing to sacrifice large sums of their own money for anonymous, confidential treatment.

Dr. Niushen Zhang and I recently published our findings in Addiction Science and Clinical Practice, 2015, “A qualitative study of treatment-seeking heroin users in contemporary China.” (To access the article online go to


Q: Describe some highlights of your stay in China/SCPKU. 

The highlight for me was hearing the life stories of heroin-addicted patients at New Hospital in Beijing, and attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, conducted entirely in Chinese. The AA members we met told us their participation in this grass-roots 12-step movement literally saved their lives. I also met many wonderful doctors and nurses working with addicted patients in China. Finally, Dr. Zhang and I became good friends. We had hardly known each other before venturing off to do research in China.


Q: List at least THREE words or thoughts that come to mind which best describe your experience at SCPKU. 

Compassion, endurance, overcoming adversity

Q: Any future plans in China? 

I’m thinking about taking a group of Stanford residents and/or medical students to China for a total immersion 3-week course to learn about addiction in China.  But not right away.