By the time you get done reading this article at least one (and likely more than one) person in China will have killed themselves. Every two minutes a Chinese person takes their own life, and it is resulting in the largest suicide (自杀, zìshā) problem in the world. In fact 287,00 deaths a year are labeled suicide-related deaths, a whopping 3.6% of the annual deaths in all demographics. In China, 22.23 people out of every 100,000 commit suicide.This rate places the country among the countries with the highest suicide rates per capita on the planet (according to the AFP).
Suicide is the number one cause of death for people 15-34, and the top for teenagers as well. 6-10 percent of young people, according to The Journal Adolescent Health, have attempted suicide. Many speculate that the increase in youth suicides is due to the amount of stress that a young person can feel as an effect of the one child policy, and also in part to the inability to get jobs. One third of the 2011 collegiate graduating class were unable to get a job, and 1.5 million of those graduates still had no job one year later.
Of all of these deaths they are not just depressed young people, suicide is a problem at every demographic of the Chinese population. It is especially a problem with more rural areas that are often impoverished, and have less access to mental health care, the suicide rate is three times higher in these areas. Where they make up the majority of the two million annual suicide attempts, a number that has gone up 60 percent in the last fifty years according to the CDC.
While it may be more common further into the mainland, it can still effect the powerful and wealthy. Eight government officials in the last year have killed themselves, and one very notable individual Zhong Haizhong. It is also the fifth leading cause of death in the elderly and China’s is the third highest rate in the world.
The suicide problem in China is different than any other place in the world. For starters, in the United States 90-95% of all suicides are preceded by depression (忧郁症, yōuyùzhèng) and other forms of mental illness, while in China, only 60% of suicides are by people who are considered mentally ill by a CDC study. Mental illness, however, does still correlate to a higher risk of suicide. Being depressed increases likelihood twenty times, while anxiety and alcohol abuse make a person six to ten times more likely to commit suicide, according to an article from China.org.cn.
The real oddity of the Chinese suicide epidemic is that most cases, unlike almost anywhere else in the world, are women. In fact 56% of all female suicides worldwide take place in China. As China holds the majority of the world’s female suicides, many questions are raised about why this may be the case. As previously mentioned, suicide is a greater problem in the more rural areas of China where suicide accounts for one third of all female deaths.
Rural China is heavily in an agricultural way of life: villagers and farmers often use powerful and highly toxic pesticides (农药, nóngyào), that are readily available, to protect crops and to deal with pests. This same poison that provides a bountiful harvest, also brings devastating loss, and is used in 58% of all Chinese suicides, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). It is a quick, painful, and almost guaranteed way for one to part with their own life. In the West, almost all suicidal behavior occurs in individuals with long-term mental illness, but in China, 40 percent of suicide survivors thought about suicide for just five minutes before they acted, and a staggering 60 percent considered it for less than two hours. Once the deed is done, many country doctors are unable to save victims, as they are ill-equipped to manage pesticide poisoning (thedailybeast.com).
So why is it that there are so many suicides among Chinese women, and why are they so impulsive? The World Heath Organization has examined the link between organophosphate pesticide (the most common pesticide in the countryside of China) and formation of suicidal thoughts. “Suicide rates are higher in areas where organophosphates are used, while exposure is also a possible risk factor for Parkinsons and Alzheimer diseases,” the report states. In addition, the report claims that exposure to the chemical could also be implicated in the development of depressive and anxiety disorders, and in deaths ascribed to mental disorders. However with up to 40 percent of the suicides in China not related to long term mental illness, the problem of impulsive suicide has still to be addressed.
Perhaps it is just the weight of the world and the one last straw that makes the decision that much easier: to end it all. Or, it could be the misguided calls for help by women who’s voices are not heard. It is believed by certain studies (hubpages.com) that 70-80 percent of female suicides involve marital conflicts.
Finally, there is this idea in Chinese culture that the meaning of suicide differs from the west. There seems to be a view that suicide is a legitimate means of conveying a message or even just escaping shame. The shame that comes with losing face and being diagnosed as mentally ill is often enough to light the fuse, and look for a final escape.
One thing about suicide that is universal is that it suicide is an escape from a life that is considered not worth living: Whether it is a depressed teenager in America or the impulsive decision of a rural Chinese villager, the effect is the same– the pain is no longer felt by the burdens of the world are no longer there and an unknown freedom awaits on the other side. While the family, society, and loved ones are left to bear the weight of the departed and the pain of the loss (a pain that does not just go away with time but a lasting wound that is universal), to all people, no matter where in the world, that pain of loss hurts all the same.