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Will China be Able to Curb Adolescent Suicide?

Suicides rates soar in the face of China’s transformation. What can China do to reverse the trend?

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  • Suicide rates soar in the face of China’s transformation. What can China do to reverse the trend?
  • Suicide is the leading cause of death among young people in China.
  • Several studies have shown that adolescents in Asian countries have a large number of psychological problems.
  • Will China – and the other Asian countries - be able to curb suicide rates, indicative of societies in crisis?
  • Chinese children grow up without siblings, facing stress from parents and schoolwork that stunts socialization.
  • Many Chinese youth kill themselves because they cannot bear the pressure of the test-oriented education system.
  • Through a combined set of actions, China can prevent suicides, which threaten to become a public health problem.

Suicides among youth have been a significant problem in many countries, but the number and the reasons for those happening in China are even more a cause for concern.

In the last few years, several studies have shown that adolescents and young people in China, Japan and other Asian countries have a large number of psychological problems that may lead them to commit to suicide.

Will China –and the other Asian countries- be able to curb those suicides that are becoming indicative of a society in crisis?

A budding suicide crisis

Although suicide is the fifth-leading cause of death in China, it has become the leading cause of death among young people. It is estimated that 287,000 people –- or one every two minutes — commit suicide every year in China.

Ten times that number attempt it — but are unsuccessful, according to the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. China now has one of the highest suicide rates in the world.

In 1897, Emile Durkheim, a French sociologist, was among the first to notice that there is a higher suicide rate among those individuals who are not socially integrated and didn’t have social support.

His observations may apply to many Chinese students who attempt suicide. Many of these students come from the interior to the country’s main cities and lack the support of their families.

Grim and stressful realities

There are several causes for adolescent suicides. In many cases, suicides relate to fear of performing badly in exams. Some experts believe that the one-child policy could also explain the rise in adolescent Chinese suicides. Because they grew up with no siblings, they are not used to dealing with difficult interpersonal problems.

According to Lin Kunhui, founder of Life Education and Crisis Intervention Center in Shanghai, young people face tremendous amounts of stress and have very few people to ask for help in solving their problems. In many cases, they confront simultaneous pressures from work, study and personal life.

Despite the extraordinary performance of the Chinese economy, many young people cannot find jobs and become depressed, contributing to the high number of suicides. Many graduates are unable to find jobs a year or more past graduation.

This is particularly problematic in rural areas, where people are poorer than in the cities and do not have good access to already scarce mental health services.

In addition, in rural areas there is abundant use of pesticides, which many people use to commit suicide. According to statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO), 58% of people who commit suicide in rural areas use pesticides to do so.

Home cooked pressures

The high number of suicides among Chinese adolescents result mostly from the extreme pressure from their families to perform well in school and excel in their studies. In addition to those pressures, teenagers experience feelings of isolation and loneliness which make them prone to attempt suicide.

Many young people kill themselves because they cannot bear the heavy pressure of the test-oriented education system, according to findings of the 2014 Report on China’s Education, also known as the Blue Book of Education.

In China, the school day can last as long as 12 hours. In many cases, Chinese students return to two to four hours of homework after finishing school. Chinese parents exert strong pressure on their children to perform well at school, strictly enforcing the demands of schoolwork on their children.

Identifying and assisting

Is it possible to lower the high suicide rate among Chinese teenagers, given the complexity of the problem? I believe so, if parents, teachers and friends can pick up signs of distress among the young. Certain characteristics –- such as depression, conduct disorders and situational crises — are associated with increased risk of suicide.

Young people may have some particular behaviors that indicate their intention to commit suicide. Among those behaviors are changes of appearance and conduct toward their friends.

Others may also be making some final arrangements such as giving away prized possessions or making suicidal threats through direct or indirect statements.

Because children and adolescents spend a substantial amount of time at school under the supervision of school personnel, school staff should be trained on the importance of risk factors and warning signs of suicidal behavior. At the same time, there should be increased communication among parents, teachers and school staff.

A good approach would be the creation of “Crises Response Teams” (CRT) made up of representatives from the students, the parents and the school administration, in charge of looking after students who exhibit behavior of concern.

In addition, students should have easy access to effective medical and mental health resources. Through a combined and comprehensive set of actions, China can effectively control what threatens to become a serious public health problem.

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About César Chelala

César Chelala is a global health consultant and contributing editor for The Globalist.

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