Suicide hotline for elderly kept busy

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 April, 2006, 12:00am

Up to 50 senior citizens call counsellors every day

The mainland's first 24-hour hotline dedicated to counselling suicidal senior citizens has been receiving up to 50 calls a day since opening in Beijing last month.

The service, founded and financed by Xu Kun , a professor of philosophy at the University of International Business and Economics, boasts only one telephone line but has answered 30 to 50 calls a day since starting operations on March 20.

Professor Xu said only 10 per cent of callers had serious suicidal thoughts, while others called because they were lonely, involved in disputes with their children or wanted tips on a 'sunset' marriage.

She said the centre's volunteers gave particular attention to callers who were seriously thinking of committing suicide, and called them back every day to talk for anywhere up to two hours.

'I always tell the volunteers that chatting with elderly people can help them with their own lives. If we can help somebody hold on one more day, it's a victory,' she said.

Professor Xu said her academic background in philosophy and psychology gave her the confidence to counsel callers, and the idea of establishing a hotline stemmed from her success in saving a life.

She said that after she called a suicidal 87-year-old former colleague for two-hour conversations each day for 20 days around the Lunar New Year this year, the man eventually abandoned the idea of taking his own life.

Professor Xu's hotline was set up against a backdrop of a high suicide rate for the elderly on the mainland. Research by the Beijing Suicide Research and Prevention Centre, the mainland's first government-sponsored centre for suicide research, shows that more than 100,000 people aged 55 or above commit suicide each year throughout the country, accounting for 33.6 per cent of all suicides.

Zhang Xiaoli , the centre's director of communication and education, said the high rate was linked to the imbalance between quality of life and life span. 'Many retired or laid-off people stay at home even though they are capable of continuing their work. They feel they are of no value and have no reason to live,' Ms Zhang said.

She said many elderly people in rural areas, where the suicide rate is almost five times higher than in urban areas, chose to kill themselves after being diagnosed with chronic diseases because they did not want their families to bear the cost of medical treatment.

Ms Zhang said in urban areas, elderly people who did not live with their children were more likely to commit suicide because their spiritual and emotional needs were not met.

But the project has come at a cost to Professor Xu. 'The office is my apartment and the telephone is mine, which is no problem. But I have racked up thousands of yuan in telephone bills. I don't know how long I can take this,' she said.