Treaty of Nanking

Lack of professional help is costing lives

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 September, 2011, 12:00am


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A lack of psychological counselling is to blame for the mainland's high suicide rate, with less than 10 per cent of depressed people receiving help, a Shanghai psychologist says.

Every year around 287,000 mainlanders take their own lives, with eight times more attempting suicide but surviving, the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention said ahead of yesterday's World Suicide Prevention Day.

Two years ago the British medical journal The Lancet highlighted China as one of seven countries with exceptionally high suicide rates, along with Lithuania, Finland, Latvia, Hungary, Japan and Kazakhstan.

Suicide has become the fifth most common cause of death on the mainland, after cardiovascular disease, malignant cancer, respiratory disease and accidents, the news portal reported.

More suicides happen in rural areas than in mainland cities, and suicide is the biggest killer among mainlanders aged 15 to 34, domestic media have reported.

Professor Xie Bin, a psychologist at the Shanghai Mental Health Centre, said many young people committed suicide because of the pressures they faced in studying and finding jobs and in their social lives.

'Young people's suicides derive from the drastic transitions in society, and in particular China's unique one-child policy, which has led to teenagers having a weak resistance to failure,' he said.

Xie said a lack of resources for counselling and other crisis interventions was the main cause of the high rate, with the general public unaware of the need to seek assistance when facing psychological problems.

He cited a survey that found more than 60 per cent of people who killed themselves were suffering from depression, but that less than 10 per cent of them ever received psychological advice.

There are 2.4 registered psychological counsellors per million mainlanders, compared to 1,000 per million in the United States. Around 60 mainland universities have psychology departments, compared with 3,000 in the US, domestic media said.

Shu Liumin, a senior counsellor from the Shanghai-based Linzi Counselling Centre who has worked in New Zealand, said there were even doubts about the qualifications of the few registered psychologists the mainland does have.

'I think many of them have a level of professionalism on a par with that of community workers in Western countries,' Shu said. 'The test for the applicants is not so difficult.'

The lack of government support for the suicide prevention efforts of non-government organisations does not help matters.

Zhang Chun, head of the Nanjing Psychological Crisis Intervention Centre in Jiangsu, said his organisation was yet to be registered by the local civil affairs authorities, even though it has been running a free suicide prevention hotline for eight years. His NGO deals with between 2,200 and 2,800 phone calls from suicidal people from across the mainland every year.

'Each year I file an application for registration, but am turned down time and time again,' Zhang said. 'Without the status of legitimacy, we are often left in a predicament. Sometimes we are even threatened with lawsuits by the families of people who took their own lives after making their last phone call to us. The distraught parents ask 'who gives you the right to interfere in my kid's suicide and what have you said?''

As well as being reluctant to approve the setting up of the prevention centre, the local government also barred it from activities designed to raise people's awareness of the problem of suicide, Zhang said.

'Before the Ching Ming Festival several years ago, I applied to the municipal government to tie yellow ribbons along the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge to remind people to cherish their lives, because the bridge sees 70 people a year kill themselves by jumping into the river.

'However, they told me not to do that for fear of marring social harmony, tainting the city's image and portraying Nanjing as a 'sad city'.'

Shu said that besides a lack of professional psychological aid, people were also losing crucial social networks. 'Nowadays people flow everywhere and neighbours frequently don't know each other,' Shu said. 'Society is not as warm as before. Therefore those contemplating suicide find they don't even have that intrinsic support system.'