China’s Suicide Rate Among the Highest in the World

(Lifesize)

September 10th is World Suicide Prevention Day. Timely, since our latest podcast is “The Paradox of Suicide.” It focuses on the specter of suicide and how, strangely, it tends to be more prevalent in rich societies than in poor ones.

One country not mentioned in the podcast is China, where suicide is definitely a cultural problem. Yesterday, China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced that China’s official suicide rate is among the highest in the world. It’s so high, that someone tries to kill themselves every two minutes. Roughly 287,000 people commit suicide each year, out of a population of 1.3 billion. From the AFP:

The disease control centre said suicide is the biggest killer among Chinese aged 15 to 34.

Extreme pressure to perform well at school and to find employment were the main reasons behind the high rate of suicide among China’s youths, media said.

The suicide rate in rural areas is three times higher than in urban centres and accounts for 75 percent of China’s suicide total, it said.

According to the Guangzhou Daily, the number of suicides in China has risen sharply during the reform and open period, when the nation’s economy has boomed.

A state-run media outlet reports that China’s suicides are up 60 percent in the past 50 years. When Stephen Dubner was in China earlier this year, he saw this compelling story in China Daily about a boy who was on the brink of killing himself.

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  1. Jeff says:

    Oddly enough, FoxConn, the infamous Apple “suicide factory”, has a lower suicide rate than China as a whole, yet Apple is being excoriated for what they’re doing to the employees there. Shouldn’t they be lauded for obviously providing a better environment, mental health-wise, than exists outside the factory?

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  2. Mike B says:

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  3. Shrey Goyal says:

    “The suicide rate in rural areas is three times higher than in urban centres and accounts for 75 percent of China’s suicide total…”

    If the rural areas account for 75% of the total, wouldn’t their suicide rate be three times that of urban centres, instead of three times *higher*.

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    • gb says:

      Rate= number of suicide per X people.

      If 9 out of 75 rural people commit suicide…the Rate is 12 %.

      If 1 out of 25 urban people commit suicide…the Rate is 4%.

      Rate is 3 times higher in rural area, the total number of suicides is 9 times higher.

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      • Joshua K. says:

        Um.. the total number of suicides is not nine times higher… because your math is off..

        1 out of 25==3 out of 75..

        9 out of 75 is 3 times higher than 3 out of 75 .. not 9 times higher…

        Something that could have been mentioned in the original article–but which kind of had to to be true to get the numbers to work out–was that the rural and urban populations in China are equal. If, for example, it were 1990–when the rural population was 75% of the total population–then you would expect 75% of suicides to be there..

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urbanization_in_China

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      • gb says:

        Read the last sentence again please…

        “Rate is 3 times higher in rural area” = your “9 out of 75 is 3 times higher than 3 out of 75″ ie a comparison of rates

        ” the TOTAL number of suicides is 9 times higher” = 9 rural deaths (out of 75) vs 1 urban (out of 25) ie a comparison of counts ignores the distribution of the population.

        It was a lesson on the difference between rates and counts.

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      • Michael S.V.K. says:

        You clearly didn’t understand what Jashua K. was saying. Since the rural and urban populations in China are roughly the same (about 670,000,000) the ratio of the rate will be roughly the same as the ratio of the count. Try it out for yourself: Divide the population by the denominator (75 and 25 respectively) and multiply by the numerator (9 and 1) and get your approximations for the number of suicides (counts) in both populations. Find the ratio between the two and you’ll find that it’s around 3:1.

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  4. steve says:

    I liked this podcast, but this was released almost two months ago? You guys got quite the team at freakonomics I suggest upping the pace of podcasts to maintain interest,; the topics are too good to not be more frequent

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  5. Kris says:

    I listened to this episode with great interest. I have a very personal tie to suicide and mental illness. What I don’t understand is why you never asked a suicidal person…or a survivor what their reasons for. It seemed this was a total conundrum. Why not just ask…..go ahead…I dare you…..

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  6. Craig T. says:

    This topic has been of interest to me since I moved to China ten years ago from the Chicago area. One particularly curious angle of this is the unusual fact that China is the only country in the world where women commit suicide at a higher rate than men. I speak fluent Chinese, and end up hearing deeply personal things about this topic from friends–women, usually–who would not dare share these thoughts with their “inner circle” for fear of disturbing the appearance of harmony which is so important to maintaining social order. The reasons for this, of course, are complex and deeply rooted in the culture–but one factor in all of this seems to be the method of the attempted suicide. At the risk of making a massive generalization, a typical Western woman takes a bunch of pills, has her stomach pumped, arouses concern from her cry for help, goes into therapy, and moves on. A Chinese woman drinks a spoonful of rat poison (countryside version) or jumps from a bridge (city version), and the deed is done.

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  7. China Watch says:

    The Global Times released a news story in China on Sept 8 with respect to this latest published results

    http://www.globaltimes.cn/NEWS/tabid/99/ID/674589/287000-commit-suicide-in-China-each-year.aspx

    The article also noted that
    • The number of suicides is 25 percent higher for females than males in China, but in developed countries male suicide rates are three times higher than female suicide rates.
    • About two million Chinese citizens attempt suicide each year, and the figure has increased by 60 percent in the past 50 years, according to the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
    My personal experience is that despair amongst the middleclass is so different in China than my own home country (Australia). Ordinary people in China seem continually stressed about loss of status, failure to stay with the crowd, social standing, school and university entrance, being completely alone etc; all these things are so much more prevalent that I observe within my normal environment. People in Australia appear to have a social safety net to retreat to, a “safer place”, and there to re-energise themselves socially and start to rebuild – in China, the state provides no safer place and thus family is more often than not the only protective zone, thus failure within a family is a damning experience.

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    • Craig T. says:

      Thanks, China Watch, for the follow up (with actual references, unlike mine). A couple of responses to your note:

      The reference to 2 million suicide attempts and the 60% increase in the past 50 years struck me as odd in the Global Times article . . . China’s population has doubled since then (100% increase), and the figure is given as a raw number (2 million attempts/year). Since the population has doubled, but the raw number of suicide attempts has only increased 60%, doesn’t that imply that the rate is less than it was 50 years ago?

      As for your comment about ordinary people and the angst involved in being a part of modern China . . . my own closest Chinese friends tend to be of the lower economic class (young factory workers, migrant workers from small towns to larger East coast cities in the service sector), and they seem to be pressured from many sides, including some that the middle class are not necessarily seeing. These folks have been largely left out of the benefits of the boom times of the past 15 years or so. They’re priced out of the housing market, so they have not built equity (on paper, anyway) from the housing boom. They are making 5 times what they did 10 years ago, but basic expenses (food, housing) cost 10-12 times more. These are the folks being targeted to develop the domestic consumer economy, so they are constantly being bombarded to have the latest electronic gadgets, clothes, etc.

      A final struggle–and you mentioned it at the end of your note–is the family angle. The traditional definition of “success” for people from the countryside had little to do with material wealth until this generation. Now, though, families left on the farm–often with the migrant workers’ children to be reared by grandparents–are expecting significant sums of money and other gifts to trickle back to the dying villages. The definition of success, weighed down heavily by tradition and further bloated by expectations of conspicuous consumption, is creating enormous pressure, and the changing structure of family dynamics only compounds the matter.

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  8. Ellie says:

    the majority of chinese people are buddists, buddists believe in rebirth, so if the quality of life goes down/pressure has increased in the last few years then the suicide rate may go up more in china than an athiest country, because by a buddist “killing themselves” they arent ending their life…meerly being reborn (which they hope will be a better standard of life).

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    • Cristobaldelicia says:

      When I was in deep depression it was like being “through the looking glass,” because I didn’t understand why people generally want to continue living. It seemed obvious that, not only would there likely be more pain and suffering in the average person’s future, but it seemed very likely that by continuing to live, the average Westerner is likely to contribute to the destruction of the environment, the poisoning of our world, and our fellow inhabitants. Etc, etc. In retrospect, it is no more rational or realistic to believe that we will actually positively impact our world, or one’s personal future will be bright, or the future of our civilization, or the planet should be viewed with any optimism. Yet the floridly optimistic are highly valued and rewarded in our society, and it is assumed that most, if not all suicide attempts are damnable crimes, and/or the result of mental illness. PS Emily, Buddhism teaches that suicide attempts bring bad karma, and all the horrible, punishing events one lives through will have to be repeated+ worse. It is not religion that drives suicide, else Scandinavia’s high suicide rate would have been solved long ago.

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    • Qinhand says:

      With respect must point out a false perception on part of Ellie. Many Chinese are Buddhist even if they don’t claim to be – but the entire point of Buddha’s teaching was to stop the cycle of rebirth – heaven, hell (not the western concept of heaven and hell), hungry spirits, animals, fighting spirits, and humans (the best place to become enlightened). No Buddhist is going to commit suicide to “improve their standard of life”. A k.y precept of Buddhism is to “take no life” .

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