Mon, Sep 27, 2004 - Page 2 News List

A helping hand can halt suicide, experts say

SURVIVORS SUFFER Suicide is a leading cause of death for young people. To prevent it, the public must become more aware of who is likely to choose suicide -- and why

By Wang Hsiao-wen  /  STAFF REPORTER

On Aug. 14, 23-year-old model Hsu Tzi-ting (徐子婷) jumped from the top of a 15-story department store in Taipei after a quarrel with her boyfriend.

On April 6, award-winning novelist Yuan Che-sheng (袁哲生) hanged himself in the woods in Hsichih. He left behind 10 novels and a note for his wife.

These cases involve figures known to the public, but they're hardly unique.

Every day, nine people in Tai-wan choose to end their lives. More than 3,000 Taiwanese kill themselves every year. Each death forcibly derails the lives of parents and children, partners and siblings, hurtling them into unfamiliar and sometimes perilous territory.

Suicide is usually talked about in hushed tones, if it's talked about at all. Despite being veiled in secrecy and surrounded by stigma, suicide is so common in our society that media do not even bother to cover the tragic events unless it happens to prominent public figures.

According to statistics from the Department of Health, the suicide rate has doubled over the past decade, rising to 0.14 percent. Last year alone, 3,195 people took their lives and even more wound up in the emergency room following a suicide attempt.

Accompanying the high prevalence are deep-rooted misconceptions. Suicide is often characterized as a response to a single event or set of circumstances, such as unemployment, a failed relationship, social seclusion and so forth. However, unlike these popular conceptions, suicide is a much more complex phenomenon and its cause varies from person to person.

"The factors that contribute to any particular suicide are diverse and complex, mental and physical alike," said Hu Wi-herng (胡維恆), former director of the Taipei City Psychiatric Center.

Clinical experience and medical surveys yield only a rough sketch of the circumstances in each case -- but statistics indicate most people who have tried suicide suffer from a psychiatric illness. The department's statistics show that 87 percent of those who have taken their own lives had a record of depression.

"People take their lives not over an isolated incident, but usually during a significant psychiatric illness," Hu said.

Although mental illnesses are treatable, sufferers face obstacles to help every step of the way. Additionally the shame and stigma of psychiatric diseases keeps many people from seeking psychiatric help.

"My patients have confessed that, many times, they flinched from walking into my diagnosis room," Hu recalled.

People who have attempted suicide are often blamed for bringing public embarrassment to their families, or for simply being too weak to climb out of their mental dungeon. Not many give deep thought as to why the specter of suicide haunts and lingers over the depressed.

"It is the stigma that hurts the patients and suicide survivors," said Hwang Jenn-tai (黃鎮台), chief executive officer of the John Tung Foundation, a non-governmental organization (NGO) dedicated to suicide prevention.

Hwang recalled how the parents of a university student silently refused his help in an emergency room where their daughter lay wordless in bed an hour after jumping from her dorm. They didn't want to acknowledge her act as a suicide attempt.

"While the act of desperation leads to thousands of fatalities each year, people must realize that a staggering 87 percent of suicide cases suffer from depression," the health department's director-general, Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁), said emphatically. "We must understand that suicide is preventable."

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