CommentInsight & Opinion

Working Hongkongers no less vulnerable to suicide risks

Paul Yip highlights the stresses faced by those in care-giving roles

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 September, 2012, 7:17am

The World Health Organisation estimates that there are about one million suicide deaths every year, which represents a "global" mortality rate of 16 per 100,000 people - or one death every 40 seconds. For every death by suicide, 20 or more people attempt to end their lives.

In Hong Kong, about 1,000 people kill themselves each year - a rate of 13.6 per 100,000, which is slightly below the world average but still higher than that of Australia (12 per 100,000), the US (11) and Britain (9).

The rate for employed people between 20 and 59 years old is 7.24 per 100,000 - much lower than that of their unemployed counterparts in the same age group. However, both groups suffer similar problems.

Based on Coroner's Court data from 2002 to 2010, employed individuals constitute about 30 per cent of all suicides each year (around 300 people), of which 70 per cent were male, 39 per cent were never married, 41 per cent had psychiatric problems and 40 per cent had financial problems. Most people in work who killed themselves were aged between 20 and 49, meaning they were in the prime of their lives.

Such findings are a reminder that while unemployment is often seen as a risk factor in suicide, we should not overlook the employed population.

In our study, we also found that two professions - nursing and the police force - had a higher suicide rate than the overall employed population, at 9.46 and 9.39 per 100,000 respectively, while the rate for teachers was about 7.35 per 100,000. Among police officers and teachers who committed suicide, over half were married; by contrast, 54 per cent of the nurses were single. Close to half the teachers who committed suicide had work-related problems. Evidence of debt was a common factor for suicide in the overall population and also among police officers (44 per cent).

These professionals share similar risk factors as the general population. On top of that, their role in caring for and safeguarding society may have additional implications. The nature of their jobs may mean society has higher expectations of them, resulting in a high-stress working environment that could affect their mental well-being. It may also contribute to a stigma that stops them seeking help when they need it.

Contrary to popular belief, having a job and being a professional does not make a person less vulnerable to mental-health issues or suicide risks. In fact, data from our centre's study indicates that self-perceived job insecurity interacts with psychiatric problems, both of which are factors associated with a higher risk of suicide.

Professionals in Hong Kong suffer from high stress levels, which can have dire consequences for their mental well-being. Highly qualified individuals in help-providing roles may feel they face more stigma for seeking professional help, so it is all the more important to foster a mutually supportive environment that fights this stigma.

The theme of this year's World Suicide Prevention Day, yesterday, is "Strengthening Protective Factors and Instilling Hope". In support of this, we are appealing to the community to foster a healthy work environment that includes: striving for a work-life balance, cultivating social support from colleagues, and promoting the importance of mental well-being.

It is important to reduce the stigma associated with suicide and mental health issues in the community. A range of protective factors need to be strengthened to prevent suicide. Some of the psychological traits to promote include resilience, self-confidence, coping and problem-solving skills, and a willingness to seek help.

Lifestyle factors such as a good diet and adequate sleep, regular physical activity and non-smoking are also associated with a lower risk of suicidal behaviour. Together we can make a better workplace; together we can light up our hopes to prevent suicide.

Paul Yip is director of the Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention and a professor of social work and social administration at the University of Hong Kong



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