September 24, 2009

RAPID ECONOMIC growth and profound social change have improved the lives of millions of Chinese, but also brought misery to those who feel left out by the country’s advances.

Health authorities say suicide has become the primary death cause among people between 15 and 34 years of age. About two million Chinese attempt to take their own lives each year, and 280,000 of those die.

Deng Xiaohong, vice-director of the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Health, told local media that suicide was the fifth biggest killer overall in China – after cardiovascular disease, cancer, respiratory disease and accidental death – among all age groups.

Most people taking their own lives use pesticides, responsible for nearly 60 per cent of suicides, and the World Health Organisation believes the easy availability of toxic pesticides is one of the reasons the Chinese rate is so high.

China is also unusual in that it is one of the few countries where female suicide mortality rates are higher than males, estimated to be more than 25 per cent higher.

The rates of suicide are particularly high in the countryside, with rural suicide rates three times higher than in the cities.

Experts are unsure about why the rate in China is so high. Some blame a lack of religion, some say it is pressure to perform in a society radically altered by massive social change.

There are regular grim reports in the media about the effects of the high suicide rate – a two-year-old boy in the southwestern city of Chongzhou was left orphaned after his parents took their own lives with pesticide following a nasty row.

In one high-profile case in July, an employee of Foxconn, a Taiwanese company which helps make the iPhone, took his own life after an inquiry into the possible theft of an iPhone G4 prototype.

Students are particularly prone. One 22-year-old man recently jumped off a dormitory roof after stabbing his girlfriend and her two roommates, seriously injuring them, and killing himself.

According to the World Health Organisation, 91 per cent of suicide victims in China have never visited a mental health professional. Moreover, almost a third did not have any signs of mental illness. Particularly worrying is the fact that 45 per cent of attempts were impulsive acts performed after considering suicide for less than 10 minutes.

As in other countries, depression is seen as a major risk factor, while illness, injury, and financial difficulties also increase the rates, particularly in the elderly.

In Guangzhou so many people have resorted to using a key bridge to take their own lives, despite guards at each end, that officials have ordered workers to cover the 300m-long structure with butter to prevent these deaths.

This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times