China's suicide rates actually have dropped almost by half over 20 years, according to Dr Michael Phillips, a prominent psychiatrist who directs the Suicide Research and Prevention Center at Shanghai Jiao Tong University's School of Medicine. He is also professor of psychiatry and public health at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, the US. He won the State Council's International Science and Technology Cooperation Award in January.
Truths about suicide
Phillips sees a "huge drop," saying the number of suicides annually is more than 100 fewer than 20 years ago.
Phillips, 63, has been studying suicide in China since 1985. He has led studies that helped uncover truths about suicide in the developing world that were initially rejected by many Western experts.
In an interview with Shanghai Daily, Phillips says he believes the drop in China's suicide rate is linked to economic reforms, urbanization and greater openness about suicide.
When suicides are reported in the news, there's a tendency to reach for "a simple answer to a very complicated problem," Phillips says. "Almost everybody experiences the breakup with a girlfriend or boyfriend and they don't (commit) suicide ... That might be the straw that broke the camel's back, but all suicides occur in the context of a complicated web of factors; they are not due to a single factor or stressor."
It's important to look at the bigger picture. "Yes, before, the rural family was a strong unit, but it also limited people a hell of a lot."
"The divorce rate has gone up a lot in recent decades. But 20 years ago, women in abusive marriages in which they were frequently beaten by alcoholic husbands had no way out at all. It was just not socially acceptable" to get a divorce.
Now there's an alternative that is not as drastic as suicide. "Kids were also restrained dramatically in terms of what they could do. Horizons were limited, particularly with the hu kou, the restrictive urban household registration that China is starting to relax."
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