China's Young People at Increasing Risk of Suicide

2013-09-11
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A man who attempted to commit suicide is seen standing on the shelter of a metro station in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, on July 29, 2012.
A man who attempted to commit suicide is seen standing on the shelter of a metro station in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, on July 29, 2012.
ImagineChina

Amid growing competition for university places and rising graduate unemployment, suicide is now the leading cause of death for Chinese people aged between 15 and 34, official media reported this week.

Nationwide, suicide is also the fifth leading cause of death across the entire population, the Beijing Evening News reported.

"We should prevent suicide in young people; in particular, suicides over the fact that they didn't get high enough grades in the university entrance exam to get a place at their ideal university, and other reasons like that," said Chinese U.S.-based medical doctor Jin Fusheng, who runs a private practice in Maryland.

"This is why we need to get the message out that all roads lead to [their goal]," he said.

"Suicide prevention requires a collective effort from communities, the media, families and the whole of society."

According to figures from the Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO), 30 percent of the world's suicides take place in China, where 250,000 people take their own lives annually.

A further 200,000 are believed to attempt suicide unsuccessfully in any given year, and China has an unusually high suicide rate among rural women, which has been linked to social inequality, domestic abuse, and the easy availability of toxic pesticides.

Depression and mental pressure

Around one half of Chinese suicides are linked to a diagnosis of depression, sparking calls for greater awareness of the issues from social commentators and medical practitioners.

"Of course this has to do with the broad social environment," Germany-based Chinese writer and social commentator Liao Tianqi said.

"Usually, for a person to take the extreme and final step of committing suicide, most would have to feel psychologically very out of tune [with their surroundings]."

She said that people under "enormous mental pressure" as well as those with psychiatric problems were driven to take their own lives in today's China, where competition for economic and educational benefits is steadily getting tougher.

"People who are under enormous mental pressure don't just need help, care, and support from their families; they need it from society as a whole; from their place of education, from organizations offering psychological counseling, or their teachers," Liao said. "This is crucial."

Seeking help

Rapid economic growth and deepening social inequalities over the past three decades have ramped up stress levels across the population, with urban white-collar workers, high-flyers, and young people all seeking psychological help in unprecedented numbers, according to mental health professionals.

Counseling hotlines are proliferating rapidly in major cities, advertising their services online with names like "The Soul's Home," "Kind Hearts," or "A Burden Halved."

China recorded more than 100 million cases of psychiatric illness in 2009, of which 16 million were classified as "severe," according to figures from the Chinese Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Around 30 percent of cases require treatment in hospital, top Beijing psychiatrist Yang Pude told Caixin Media in a recent report.

But only 132,000 beds were available in psychiatric clinics and hospitals in 2005, less than a quarter of the world average of 4.3 psychiatric beds per 10,000 head of population.

As a result, many people in need of treatment are forced to fall back on family, and remain living in the community with no record of their level of risk or assessment of their needs, the report said.

Treatable illness

According to Jin, one of the leading psychiatric causes of suicide is easily preventable with the right treatment.

"The commonest pathology we see leading to suicide is depression," he said. "It needs treatment from a psychiatrist, including medication."

"While the suicide rate among people with depression is high, this is a treatable disease."

Reported by Xi Wang for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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