The escalating suicide problem in Asia

Tuesday 7th September 2010
Asian suicides.jpg

In Japan, suicide is the leading cause of death among men aged 20-44 and women 15-34. Across the water in South Korea, one human life is lost to suicide every forty minutes. And in China, 287,000 people take their own lives every year.

These three countries have some of the worst suicide rates in the world, with Japan and Korea also topping the OECD (developed) country rankings.

Suicide rates provide a comparative measure, however experts say more focus needs to be on the reasons why.

The latest figures out of Japan estimate a disturbing suicide rate of nearly 26 per 100,000 people for 2009 (average is about 12).

Following the 1997 stock market crash, the Japanese suicide rate increased by 35% and the actual number has remained above 30,000 ever since.

Research indicates there is a link between suicide and both economic hardship and depression.

In Japan, these two factors are considered to be the drivers behind the colossal number of train ‘jumpers’ and people who head to the ‘suicide forest’ near Mt Fuji.

In fact, suicide by train is so common that most commuters accept the delays due to ‘human incident’ with a resigned shrug of their shoulders.

Japan still operates under very traditional societal structures. Losing one’s job is considered the ultimate shame with people aspiring to the traditional value of signing on to a company for life.

This is proving problematic with both large and small businesses suffering from the economic crisis and making unprecedented layoffs.

Suicide in Japan is also somewhat romanticised as a traditional way of preserving one’s honour and avoiding shame. It is not uncommon for senior politicians to favour this option instead of facing the consequences of an official inquiry for instance.

Korea’s figures for 2008 were 24.3 per 100,000, and based on the year-on-year negative trend, the 2009 data is expected to be worse. Despite rising prosperity, Korea’s suicide rate increased nearly 50% between 1998 and 2008.

While Korea’s economic conditions are not as bleak as Japan’s, the pressure to succeed, especially for young people, is more ferocious.

Korea has a best and brightest mentality, where students are strongly pushed by their parents to better their lives. Students usually attend school, followed by a cram school programme late into the evening and then study when they get home.

The pressure placed on Korean students is so immense that exam season is known as ‘suicide season’. And it’s getting worse. Last year the suicide rate among school students soared by 47%.

Other influencing factors include psychiatric problems (perhaps caused by societal pressures), family issues and the increasingly materialistic society.

Changing society and the break-up of the traditional family unit are also being attributed to the concerning increase in senior citizens who are struggling financially and turning to suicide.

The data for China is more difficult to locate, with some reports stating the suicide rate is around 23 per 100,000, while others say it’s more like 14 per 100,000.

Nevertheless, China’s high suicide rate is actually declining overall, despite the recent media frenzy around the 10 factory suicides at Foxxconn, the gigantic manufacturer that makes almost all of Apple’s devices.

Still, China is the only country in the world where female suicides outnumber males, and rural suicides outnumber urban ones.

In urban areas, it’s stress and depression that are considered the key drivers. In the rural areas, pesticide ingestion is the most common method, but it’s often considered more of an escape and a spur of the moment decision than premeditated suicide.

Suicide data is highly ambiguous due to the different reporting techniques and timings used. There is also concern that suicide rates across these particular countries are actually under-reported.

On a positive note, Japan’s new Prime Minister Naoto Kan is keen to address the issue and “minimise unhappiness.”

Experts say this will require more mental health support, improving work environments and challenging cultural attitudes towards suicide, as well as improving the economy.

In Korea they are launching public campaigns against suicide as well as educational programmes to spot signs of depression and suicidal tendencies.

In China, awareness of the issue is increasing – especially at a government level – but there is still no decisive strategy to address it.

However, many argue that the openness with which the Chinese authorities approached the Foxxconn issue was a sign of their willingness to address the matter.

The risk of course is that freedom to report suicides can often result in copy-cat behaviour from readers – hence the strict regulations imposed on suicide reporting in a number of countries.

With so many contributing factors, it can be a difficult problem to solve. But for Japan and South Korea in particular, it’s a problem that needs addressing before it’s too late.

By Lenska Papich

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