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Suicide: China's Growing Social Problem

About 250,000 people commit suicide and countless others attempt suicide every year in China. Suicide is one of the country's top five causes of death. In the 15 to 34-year age group, it is the No.1 cause of death, according to a report by the Ministry of Heath.

More significant, incidents of attempted suicide cannot be ignored because suicide attempts are likely to be repeated, eventually resulting in a successful suicide. Further, according to United Nations' statistics, the number of people who have attempted suicide is 10 to 20 times higher than the number of people who actually successfully kill themselves.

In China, there is no mechanism in place that monitors attempted suicides. Therefore, it is not known exactly how many people have actually tried to end their lives.

But according to the Beijing Suicide Research and Prevention Center (BSRPC), the number of people who have attempted suicide in China is 10 to 15 times higher than the number of people who succeed. According to the limited data from hospital emergency rooms, researchers estimate that up to 2.5 to 3.5 million people attempt suicide every year.

Further, many who do attempt suicide actually succeed because of the methods they employ. Underdeveloped emergency first aid systems in many parts of the country, especially in the rural areas, worsen the situation.

In 2000, the BSRPC conducted research into emergency room treatment records from Beijing's 152 hospitals. It found that 3,530 cases were recorded as attempted suicides. The BSRPC also estimates that at least 9,428 people who attempted suicide received hospital treatment. But it is only an estimate because many attempted suicides are recorded as "unexpected poisoning" cases in Beijing's hospitals. Attempted suicide by ingesting large amounts of pesticides or other poisons seems to be the suicide mode of choice. Those treated for poisoning might or might not admit to actually having attempted suicide.

Multiple attempted suicides

According to Li Xianyun, director of the education & training department of BSRPC, 16 percent of those who attempt suicide do so more than once; one quarter of those who do successfully kill themselves had attempted suicide previously. Therefore, one of the research goals of the BSRPC is to identify and profile characteristics of people who attempt suicide, in the hope that subsequent attempts can be prevented.

Attempted suicides are usually impulsive

Li said his research team made a psychology evaluation of 659 people who had attempted suicide, and found that only 38 percent of them had any psychological issues such as depression and alcoholism.

Many attempted suicides are generally done on impulse, and most do not even have the strong intention to kill themselves. As a result, they tend to employ measures that might be considered to be less fatal. Of the 659 people evaluated, 37 percent said that they had spent less than five minutes deciding whether or not to do it, 46 percent took less than ten minutes to decide, and 60 percent spent less than two hours to make a decision.

The research revealed that 64 percent of people who succeed in killing themselves did suffer from psychological problems.

Women three times more likely to attempt suicide than men

Li's research has revealed that women are three times more likely to attempt suicide than men.

Li reckons that this is because marriage acts like a protection of sorts for men. But not so for women who often have to leave their families after marriage. Further, many women have a difficult time adjusting to life with the in-laws who might not treat them very well. This can lead to depression and the like.

Interestingly, however, is that more men successfully kill themselves than women.

Li explains that it's because men tend to use more fatal methods of suicide, ensuring that their attempts are successful.

The importance of psychology treatments

In China's hospitals today, people who attempt suicide are only treated for their physical injuries. There are no available treatments for their mental well-being. In a sense, repeatedly treating their physical injuries without actually getting to the root cause of the problem, so as to prevent another suicide attempt, is in the long run a waste of medical resources. Perhaps China should consider the methods of treatment employed in other countries where those who attempt suicide are subjected to mandatory psychological observation. For the moment, China only offers such treatment to people who pose a danger to others.

( by Wang Sining June 16, 2005)

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