Suicide Rampant Among Chinas Rural Women, Urban Middle Class

Sept. 27, 2005: Office workers watch as a woman climbs up a wall on her way up to a building from where she tried to jump off in Fuzhou, in southeastern China's Fujian province. Photo: AFP

HONG KONG—Chinese women are committing suicide at an alarming rate, especially in rural areas left out of the country's economic boom. But experts say economic success is also taking its toll in the form of growing numbers of suicides among the urban middle classes.

Recent studies of depression and suicide in China have revealed a unique social pattern: China is the only country in which the suicide rate for females is higher than for males.

"I believe that the high suicide rate among Chinese women has to do with the low status of women throughout Chinese society," counselling psychologist Zhan Chuhua told a recent Investigative Report series on mental health.

Women face major hurdles

"Often Chinese women lack resources to support them, so that when they run into problems, especially in their marriages, it is easy for them to become victims," said Zhan, who has worked on the Kangning Mental Health Hotline in the southern city of Guangzhou for many years.

"In the workplace too, it is far more difficult for women than it is for men. For example, if a working woman gets pregnant, she will find it very difficult. And the likelihood of being on the receiving end of harassment is much higher for a woman. So all of this adds to the difficulties in the life of a Chinese woman, so that's probably why the suicide rate is higher," he added.

I felt that I had no energy at all in the whole of my body...It was very hard for me to enjoy being with my friends, or to take an interest in life. ...I lost a lot of confidence in myself. When I was carrying out tasks I lacked my former energy and confidence, and I couldn't perform as well as I had before.

Around 90 percent of Chinese women who end their own lives live in the countryside, where poverty is ubiquitous, in stark contrast to the booming urban regions along China's coast.

As the population continues to rise, suicides of Chinese women now make up half the world total of female suicides. A high proportion of these suicides are among young women, in the 16-26 age range.

Guangzhou psychologist Zhan blamed the high incidence of suicide among rural women on lack of education and a lack of controls on lethal pesticides.

"With rural women, they could run into problems with their living conditions. But another major factor is the lack of supervision over pesticides in the Chinese countryside. It's there, ready for anyone to take. So if someone gets very unhappy, the means to commit suicide is right there in the form of a container of pesticide, and they just drink it," Zhan said.

"This problem would be much alleviated by stricter controls on the sale and use of pesticides, so you have to account for what you buy and say what you're going to use it for," he added.

Director Cheng, who heads the mental health department at the Chronic Illness Hospital in the Bao'an district of Shenzhen, said however that it wasn't only rural women who were hard hit by depression and suicide, and that high-flying businesspeople were also vulnerable to these problems.

"Some people keep their anxiety, their depression, whatever their psychological problem, a total secret from everyone around them. Even their wives don't know about it," he said.

"The suicide rate is particularly high among these types of powerful and famous people. They never seek treatment, and therefore their suicides are impossible to predict," Cheng said.

A major cause of mortality

According to a recent paper published by the British medical journal The Lancet , China's suicide rate is now 23 in every 100,000, twice the proportion seen in the United States.

Depression ranks fourth worldwide as a major illness affecting people's productivity in daily life.

In the absence of widely available and affordable mental health care, patients with depression can also become a heavy burden on their families, and the disorder is one of the main factors behind suicide.

One former Chinese office worker described her depressive symptoms to RFA Mandarin service reporter Bai Fan:

"I felt that I had no energy at all in the whole of my body...It was very hard for me to enjoy being with my friends, or to take an interest in life. Sometimes I felt faint, unreal, I also had illusions, as if I was living in a dream...I lost a lot of confidence in myself. When I was carrying out tasks I lacked my former energy and confidence, and I couldn't perform as well as I had before."

The woman's relatives said she had already quit her job and now spent her days sitting at home, remaining silent, unable to do anything, not even preparing food with the rest of the family, which she had previously enjoyed.

Psychologist Sun Ping at the Zibo City Psychiatric Hospital in the eastern province of Shandong, said there were a great many people across China who suffered from depression. But she added that most didn't seek professional or medical help for fear of the social stigma attached to such a diagnosis.

"There has been a striking rise in the number of people seeking psychological treatment and counselling in recent years," Sun said.

"But because of the massive social upheavals going on at the moment, there is still insufficient understanding of this sort of problem among the general population," she said.

Original reporting in Mandarin by Bai Fan. RFA Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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