Troubled Youth: Chinas Student Suicide Crisis


A young college student threatens to jump from the window of her dormitory building in Shenyang, Liaoning province. She is later coaxed down by her parents. Photo: AFP

HONG KONG—China's university and high school students, faced with growing pressures amid rapid social change and a tough job hunt for fresh graduates, are increasingly seeking a way out of their problems through suicide, experts say.

Suicide among university students has become normal now.

A recent survey of student mental health showed more than a quarter of those interviewed said they had had suicidal thoughts.

The May student psychology poll conducted by the Society Survey Institute of China questioned 1,000 university students in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Nanjing, Wuhan, and other major cities.

"All the problems are on the rise. Suicide among university students has become normal now," according to one instructor at a technical college who declined to be identified.

Student suicides on the rise

"There are many reasons for this, which need to be analyzed in a concrete way," he said, adding that problems finding work was probably the single biggest factor.

The poll also showed more than 16 percent of university students reported having experienced anxiety or panic attacks, depression, and symptoms of paranoia.

And a recent study conducted by the provincial education department in the central province of Hubei showed that at least one student in every university in the province committed suicide in any given year, and that this figure appeared to be on the rise.

The study also showed that every completed suicide was linked to psychological problems.

A doctor surnamed Kang at the Taiyuan Psychiatric Hospital in the northern province of Shanxi said growing social pressures were certainly a major factor in the sharp increase in student suicides as China's economy continues to grow at breakneck speed.

"Part of the reason is growing social pressure. That's a major factor," Kang told RFA's Mandarin service. "Another aspect is the higher incidence of psychological problems in society as a whole. Some people seek help, but others suffer from these problems without ever getting professional help. Those are the two main reasons."

Growth of hotlines

Overall, an estimated 1.6 million people are believed to suffer from psychological problems in China, but the vast majority of problems such as anxiety and depression are neither recognized nor treated.

But gradually, mental health awareness is beginning to grow, following a string of well-publicized suicides at university campuses across the country.

At the beginning of December 2005, a female post-graduate student at the north campus of Zhongshan University in the southern city of Guangzhou committed suicide by leaping from a tall building.

On March 1 this year, another female post-graduate from the Huanan Agricultural College killed herself by jumping off a building, the fourth suicide at this college in less than a month. She was preceded by two other female post-graduates and a male undergraduate on Feb. 20, Feb. 22, and Feb 27.

Other suicides were also reported: on April 28, a doctoral student in Chengdu, and on May 16, a doctoral student at Beijing's People's University who was about to graduate.

The growing issue of mental distress in China is manifest in the proliferation of counselling hotlines, which extend much-needed support in a country where psychological counselling is still in its infancy.

Stigma of mental distress

A counsellor at the Kangleyuan hotline in the southern city of Shenzhen attributed the growing number of suicides among young people to undiagnosed and untreated depression.

"Here in Shenzhen the problems are usually to do with people's love life, or with problems with their studies," said the counsellor, identified only by her surname, You.

"Meanwhile, there are lots of teenager-related problems, such as the head of household who has [financial] problems with their children's education...or online gaming."

Psychological problems have only begun to get the full attention of the medical profession and the general public in China in recent years.

Studies show that around 90 percent of completed suicides have never received help of any kind. And most people still cannot distinguish easily between acute psychological problems (mood disorders) and acute mental illnesses (psychosis) when they occur in people they know.

Sometimes, patients and their families are aware that something is wrong but don't seek treatment for fear of the potential social stigma attached to mental distress.

Numbers seeking help rise

One doctor who treats both psychological problems and acute mental illness at Beijing's Ankang Hospital told RFA that there was a very big difference between the two and that they were treated in very different ways.

"Put in plain Chinese, if someone is out of control, then we send them to the psychiatric ward...In the more serious cases it's very easy to tell that there is something wrong with the person. They can't fit into work or into society. But when people have psychological difficulties they receive counselling, and they will see a psychologist."

Examples of mental health problems on the rise in China in recent years include depression and depressive disorder, anxiety, paranoia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Ms. You, a counsellor from the Kangleyuan hotline in the southern city of Shenzhen, said she worked with clients both face-to-face and over the telephone.

"Over here in Shenzhen, our helpline has 10 phone lines for incoming calls. There are as many again at our Guangzhou branch," You said.

"The majority of those who call us are seeking counselling by telephone, for which we charge a fee. If the person can't get in to see someone then we offer telephone counselling, but if they are in Shenzhen or nearby then they can see someone face-to-face, because the results are much better than with telephone counselling."

Young people at risk

A doctor at the Shanghai Municipal Mental Health Counselling Center told RFA the center was extremely busy, and the numbers were rising year-on-year.

"We see 200-300 patients a day here," she told RFA reporter Bai Fan.

"The numbers rise every year. Some present with psychological problems. Others have mental illness. We see them all. We are a psychiatric hospital, so we see patients with acute mental illness, and those in need of psychological counselling."

A recent study on suicide carried out by the World Bank-backed Disease Control Priorities Project found that young people aged between 15 and 24 were at particularly high risk of suicide, both in China and in other developing countries.

"Studies from Sri Lanka, India, and China have shown that poverty, bankruptcy, and unemployment are significant risk factors for suicide," the report said.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has also identified poverty as a major factor in suicide, followed by stress, mental illness, and substance abuse.

Higher suicide rates, especially among the young, have been associated with higher rates of unemployment.

Societies with booming and cutthroat economies, as is the case in China, with a large pool of unemployed youth, are at higher risk.

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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