The nation's first suicide-prevention centre is set to counsel people struggling to cope with issues ranging from unemployment to poor grades. Staff hope the centre, based in a Beijing hospital, will be followed by other facilities at a time when the national suicide rate exceeds that of Western countries. 'We hope to have a mushroom effect,' said training supervisor Marlys Bueber, an American who has lived in China for 14 years. Huilongguan Hospital, which has carried out psychiatric research including suicide studies, has set aside a one-storey building to house the Suicide Research and Prevention Centre. By January, the hospital plans to set up a telephone hotline and a Web site to reach potential clients. The centre will be open 24 hours for visitors and has agreed to take referrals from three other Beijing hospitals. The hospital received two million yuan (HK$1.8 million) in funding from the city government to set it up. Trained by three Hong Kong volunteers and two psychiatric specialists from the United States, the 16 staff nurses know what questions to ask - and not to ask - of people threatening suicide. 'We talk it over and lead them to their own solutions,' said An Fengming, a clinical investigator. Suicide-prevention services are rare in China - previously there was just one hotline in Shanghai. Until now, hospitals have treated suicide attempts with drugs rather than talking to patients. Xinhua has reported that 22 people per 100,000 commit suicide annually, higher than figures for Canada, Britain or the United States. Rural Chinese are three times more likely to kill themselves than city dwellers, and women are more likely to commit suicide than men. According to an article in the British medicine journal the Lancet compiled by Huilongguan staff and the mainland government, there are 287,000 suicides every year in China, making it the fifth most common cause of death and the top cause among young people. However, the article says relatively few victims are mentally ill. Causes of suicide in cities tend to include marital disputes, unemployment and poor school marks, according to telephone hotline nurse Wang Cuiling. Rural residents may be driven to kill themselves by poverty and the easy availability of pesticides. The suicide centre's methods were similar to Western models, Ms Wang said. But although the centre encourages intervention in extreme cases, the staff are unsure of whether Chinese laws allow them to contact police. The new centre will be advertised on buses and in newspapers. Both Canadian-born Chinese TV star Mark Rowswell and paralysed gymnast Sang Lan have agreed to act as spokespeople.