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Hong Kong's Soaring Suicide Rate Tied to Economy - 2002-05-14

Hong Kong's battered economy is taking a toll on the city's people. Suicide rates have been climbing, and last year, rose 12 percent from 1999. The territory's increasing ties to mainland China add to the strain on families.

Inhaling deadly carbon monoxide by burning charcoal in a closed room is an increasingly common way of committing suicide in Hong Kong. To fight the trend, messages on bags of charcoal urge people to cherish life, and seek help when problems become overwhelming.

The messages are just one of many ways the city is fighting the rise in suicides. The government is particularly targeting families, to keep suicidal parents from killing their children, as well as themselves.

Church and community groups have developed grassroots programs to recruits mentors to help people struggling with depression. Other aid groups have expanded hotlines and established crisis centers.

Despite these efforts, Hong Kong's suicide rate is four times that of the United Kingdom. Professor Paul Yip of Hong Kong University has studied suicide trends. He says the ease of using charcoal is part of the problem. "Since 1998, the charcoal burning, it has become very serious now," said Professor Yip.

He pointed out that before 1998, charcoal was used in six six percent of suicides; it is now used in 25 percent of cases. "It is because this new method, it actual draw[s] in some people who would not kill themselves if this method is not available."

Dr. Yip says charcoal burning is seen as a painless way to die. It particularly appeals to women, who make up a larger proportion of Hong Kong's suicide victims than in the West. "Charcoal burning is appealing to the middle-aged group people. And this middle-aged group is also the group which is worst hit by this Asian economic downturn," he added.

In late 1997, the Asian economic crisis hit Hong Kong. The city recovered from that blow, but since 2000, the economy has faltered again, with unemployment and bankruptcy soaring.

A director at Hong Kong's Social Welfare Department, So Wong Wei-yee, says many people are unable to cope with unemployment and financial hardship, "because in the past years Hong Kong has been enjoying a very prosperous economy. But," she noted, "the circumstances have changed a lot, and I think people have difficulty in accepting the changes."

Graphic photographs of suicide victims are regularly featured in newspapers here, with teen suicides grabbing front-page headlines.

Social worker Pricilla Liu, says explicit reports may incite copycat behavior. "I think the stress and strain in the community sometimes has been escalating to an extent that young people themselves don't know what to do," she said. "And sometimes it may trigger young people making certain attempts in a certain way."

Suicide pacts among friends, lovers and even family members have prompted social workers to teach children as young as five to stand up for their rights and survive a situation where they may be pressured into suicide. Still, the number of parents who kill their children and then commit suicide has surged.

In twelve such cases between April 2001 and April 2002, 15 children died. The past 12 months has seen more cases of family murder-suicide than the previous five years combined.

Ms. Liu says most cases involve the mother. She says research shows suicidal women who kill their children are very often reacting to an adulterous husband. "The thing is, it's a way of protesting what has happened to them, or as a means of revenge to the person who has created stress and the whole problem," she said.

Most Hong Kong's factories have moved into mainland China, so many business owners and managers spend more time across the border. One result has been an increase in what is referred to as cross-border infidelity.

"Some of the family violence is because of spouse's adultery problem, said Paulina Kwok, director of a family crisis center in Hong Kong. "Because cross-border adultery in these few years, the problem [is] more serious and arouses a lot of family tragedy," she said.

The situation is not without hope. Dr. Yip, at Hong Kong University, says in 1996, he forecast a rise in suicide among the elderly. Since then, he says, a government program aimed at helping older citizens fight depression actually has cut the rate of suicide deaths among the elderly.