CHINA> National
Suicide sparks concern for officials' mental health in quake zone
Updated: 2008-10-10 20:58

CHENGDU - Authorities in the southwest China May 12 quake zone are seeking ways to improve the mental health of their staff after a 40-year-old senior official of Beichuan County, one of the worst-hit areas, committed suicide.

Dong Yufei, the county agriculture commission head and disaster relief office director, hanged himself in a temporary office on October 3.

Dong, who lost his 12-year-old son and other relatives in the quake, left a letter that read: "I feel too much pressure from life and work everyday. I cannot hold on any further. And I just want a good rest."

Officials and the public in Sichuan Province are now questioning the amount of pressure under which grassroots officials work.

"It was surprising for such an iron man to fall like this. It was a great pity and worth our reflection," said Feng Bin, first deputy head of the Organization Department of Communist Party of China Beichuan County Committee.

"Dong was a positive man. We're surprised at his suicide," said Tang Anwen, the county agriculture commission deputy head.

"I asked his permission for sick leave that morning. He told me to take care of myself. I never imagined he would take his own life that afternoon.

"He became depressed after his son died. Although he displayed a strong will and worked hard, he was in a depressive mood," Tang said.

Dong's death resonated among local officials in the province.

"Most of grassroots officials in the quake-hit area were weighed down with tasks from their superiors. The workload is at least five times greater than before the quake and locals always complained a lot to them," said Luo Yingguang, head of the municipal publicity department of Mianzhu, also a badly hit area.

"In such a time and in such a post, I have to learn to be strong. I have so many affairs to deal with every day," said Mianzhu deputy mayor Guo Yongfu, who lost her 22-year-old daughter in the quake.

"Whenever people ask me how my daughter is, I always say she is receiving treatment outside Sichuan," said Guo.

Zhang Wei, a psychologist and deputy head of West China Hospital affiliated to Sichuan University, said, "Three to six months after the quake is an bursting point of psychological crisis. Depression can set it after the initial tension eases.

"Grassroots officials are the focus of the pressure, with tasks from the superiors and requirements from the public. But they are also common people and are victims of the victims."

However, psychological intervention was not possible because of the lack of personnel -- even for the children, let alone officials, he said.

In total, 466 officials of Beichuan, a quarter of the total, died in the quake. Many others lost relatives.

In July and August, the county government offered psychological and material support to officials who lost loved ones. They also dispatched officials to other areas and promoted some to ease the pressure.

It also had a compulsory vacation policy, forcing them to rest, but with the heavy burden of rescue and reconstruction, few really rested.

Dong Yufei's suicide prompted the government to give more care to the grassroots officials.

"Now the reconstruction goes on the right track. We're considering sending them for training in other cities. The focus is on psychological help," said Feng Bin.

"This is an unseen rescue. I hope Dong was the first and last suicide," said a county government official without telling his name.