Progress and Suicide


By Prof. Celso Cainglet


            The last time I was in China I was mesmerized by the progress, the innovation in science and technology, the high-tech environment and then I asked our tour guide, with all these progress how’s the suicide rate? And she replied: “Oh it is very high! ” Not only in China but all over the world actually, in America aside from the high suicide rate random shooting is everywhere.


            When I went to Louvain I was originally accepted to the MA Philosophy program. But I saw that there was a new program MA in Applied Ethics. I found it more practical and I preferred it than the MA Philosophy. When I inquired I was told that it was already closed because the quota for the students has already been met. The next day I received a call from the Secretary of the Faculty that there was an opening. So I got in. Later on I found out that one of the students (an Irish Catholic priest committed suicide) so there was an opening.


            It seems there is a correlation between suicide and progress.  High suicide rate is symptomatic of a society going through tremendous stress bordering on the edge of exhaustion.


            In the 2019 WHO Report China had 6.7 (per 100,000 population) suicide rate. While the United States had 14.5 (per 100,000 population) suicide rate. The Economist reported that in the 90s China had the highest suicide rate in the world.  It was the 5th cause of mortality in Chinese society. Majority were women and it was attributed to the fast rate of economic progress and urbanization.  Women became economically independent and could afford to file for divorce. Raising children as single mothers put a strain  on their mental health. 


            The National Library of Medicine said that China’s suicide is unique among the rest of the world wherein more women commit suicide while in the rest of the world more men commit suicide. More so, suicide in Asia account for 60% of the suicides of the world.


            The WHO, Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse claimed that  90% of autopsies of suicide victims in Europe and the Americas had pre-existence psychiatric disorders. Whereas autopsies of suicide victims in China and Asia had a low case of psychiatric disorders. Some argued that “socio-cultural stressors play a greater role  in suicide in Asian countries than they do in Europe and in the United States of America.”


            The Frankfurt School following Freud’s psychoanalytic theory said that modernity especially in societies where money is the motivation brought about “hysteria-neuroses to the current era of borderline narcissist.” The pressures on individuals and families to keep up with the standards prescribed by the commercial world are exerting a strain on their mental health.


             Alvin Toffler in his book Future Shock “points out that overstimulation and radical changes in life, according to clinical studies, can inflict physical and mental damage on individuals, and he argues that protean modern society may increasingly induce a debilitating physiological and psychological condition he calls “future shock.”  Technology develops very rapidly, the fast movement of capital and labor has re-arranged society and modes of living to the point that an individual or society find it hard to adapt adequately to the fast changing world. 


            Toffler further added: “This reaction is related to the “culture shock” of moving into a new culture but is more severe, as its victims will lack the option of moving back into their old, familiar culture. If left unacknowledged and untreated, this condition might even lead to widespread nervous breakdowns and dysfunctional behavior in a “future-shocked society.”


            Asian government has acknowledge the problem and participated in the international project called STOPS–Strategies to Prevent Suicide.  The project has threefold approaches: “The first is encouraging community members with affective disorders to seek professional care; the second is educating physicians and other professionals (particularly those in primary care settings) to recognize and treat depression and related disorders; and the third is improving the quality of treatment for depression and other disorders that convey suicide risk. It includes efforts to improve the recognition and treatment of depression by non-specialist physicians that are currently underway in Asian countries.”


            Recently the Archives on Preventive Medicine published a study made by Dr. Jie Zhang, Professor-Director of Center for China Studies, Department of Sociology, State University of New York, claiming that there is a decline of suicide rate in the year 2000 up to the present compared to the high suicide rate in  the 90s. Among the factors that brought about the decline were: Fast economic development has rapidly improved the quality of life; Migration to urbanized areas reduced rural; population; Modernized social values liberated rural women; One-child one family policies made today’s marriage age women more valued; Surveillance based counselling monitored youth on campus; and reduce suicide strain.


            Through efficient government interventions suicides can be mitigated. China and other Asian governments recognized the problem and confronted it head-on. The STOPS project is participated by more and more Asian governments. The Asian Confucian culture always aims for balance and harmony.  This is where the strength of Asian lies—its aspiration to balance progress and personal as well as communal well-being.





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