Sun, Jan 05, 2003 - Page 17 News List

The kids are not alright

The suicide rate among Taiwan's young people is rising, and while resources at counseling centers are stretched past their limit and the government does little to provide help, the nation's youth are often left to their own devices

By David Momphard  /  STAFF REPORTER

Lisa swallowed about 20 pills and washed them down with a bottle of water. "The kind in the square plastic bottle. It's more expensive, but it was going to be the last drink of my life," she said of her suicide attempt two years ago.

"It's probably good that I don't like liquor -- liquor probably would have done the job." Taiwan's suicide rate is one of the worst in Asia. According to the Department of Health's data for 2001 -- the last year for which a full accounting is available -- suicide was the ninth-biggest killer of Taiwanese, claiming 2,781 lives, or 2.2 percent of all fatalities. As with most other countries, the suicide rate among the elderly was the highest, with nearly 38 people in every 100,000 taking their own lives. But even with this high number, suicide ranked 14th among the biggest killers of those over age 65.

Far more alarmingly, suicide was the third leading cause of death for those between the ages of 15 and 24. One hundred eighty people in this age range killed themselves in 2001. That number increases five-fold for the next highest age group, those between 25 and 44, for whom suicide was the fourth leading cause of death. More than a thousand people in this age bracket committed suicide that year, 699 men and 304 women.

But statistics tell only part of the story and mask many of the real problems. Many more suicides are attempted but fail -- Taipei's Mackey Memorial Hospital alone treated more than 400 people who attempted suicide in 2001 -- and countless others threaten or contemplate the act without receiving counseling. WHO data indicate that the number of suicide attempts by young people in particular may be up to 20 times higher than the number of completed suicides.

Insurmountable problems

Lisa, who agreed to recount her story on condition that her real name not be used, smiles when talking about the most painful time in her short life. Now 20, she recounts her brush with death during her senior year of high school with blushing embarrassment. "I thought the problems I had then were going to stay with me for the rest of my life," she said. "I thought I'd already messed up everything before I was even out of high school." Although depression is the most cited reason for attempting suicide, it is far from the only one. Terminal disease, divorce, the death of a loved one, unemployment, insurmountable debt, unrequited love and, for Asians, "loss of face" are all common reasons. In March 2001, one Taiwanese man even killed himself out of anxiety over where the Mir space station might crash.

When your world exists within the walls of a high school, however, the reasons are usually related to intense but fleeting psychological trauma -- problems that seem like the end of the world for someone who, a decade earlier, had just stopped teething.

For her part, Lisa had just terminated a pregnancy and was then dumped by the father, her boyfriend of three years. "I was always a good student and had been preparing for college for years. Then right before the Joint College Entrance Exam my life became a nightmare. ... You see suicides reported on the news every night and I envisioned my boyfriend learning about my death on TVBS. They always show it when kids kill themselves."

She's right. Media coverage of individual suicides has been cited as a main cause for subsequent suicides. Glamorization of suicide often leads to imitation. The media can actually assist in preventing suicides, according to the WHO, by limiting graphic and unnecessary depictions and by deglamorizing news reports of suicides.

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