IN THE 1990s China had one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Young rural women in particular were killing themselves at an alarming rate. In recent years, however, China’s suicides have declined to among the lowest rates in the world.
In 2002 the Lancet, a British medical journal, said there were 23.2 suicides per 100,000 people annually from 1995 to 1999. This year a report by a group of researchers from the University of Hong Kong found that had declined to an average annual rate of 9.8 per 100,000 for the years 2009-11, a 58% drop.
The most dramatic shift has been in the figures for rural women under 35. Their suicide rate appears to have dropped by as much as 90%.And why? Because life for young rural women was miserable.
Two intertwined social forces are driving the reduction: migration and the rise of an urban middle class. Moving to the cities to work, even if to be treated as second-class citizens when they get there, has been the salvation of many rural young women, liberating them from parental pressures, bad marriages, overbearing mothers-in-law and other stresses of poor, rural life. Migrants have also distanced themselves from the easiest form of rural suicide, swallowing pesticides, the chosen method in nearly 60% of rural cases, and often done impulsively. The reduction in toxicity of pesticides has helped as well.Although the Economist contrasts these patterns with the theories of French sociologist Émile Durkheim in the 19th century, more recent research shows that beyond a few demographic regularities, patterns of suicide tend to be culturally variable. One to the regularities, however, is that suicide rates are highest among teens and the elderly. China has increasingly fewer teens and increasingly more older people, so we can anticipate a future rise in suicide rates in China, as the Economist does point out:
The urbanisation and atomisation of the extended family, which led to a decline in suicides among younger generations, have left the elderly with fewer caretakers in the countryside and with few familiar faces in apartment blocks in the cities. The one-child policy has compounded this effect and will only make the burden heavier for the elderly and their children, just as the stresses of modern life are becoming more pronounced. Twenty years from now, the story of China’s suicide rate could be grimmer than it is today. But rates seem unlikely to return to the levels of the 1990s.