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World Suicide Prevention Day due for tomorrow
Updated: 2004-09-09 09:42

Ahead of tomorrow's "World Suicide Prevention Day," Shanghai has its first volunteer suicide intervention team, lending a sympathetic ear and heart to those in need, writes Xu Wei.

When Ms Ye regained consciousness after emergency treatment at Shanghai Gongli Hospital, she was astonished to find so many caring faces.

The people around her were there to support, not judge. They were from a unique group -- the first voluntary suicide intervention team in Shanghai.

The 20-something Ye from Jiangsu Province tried to commit suicide by cutting her wrists after she was fired. Pale and depressed, Ye wouldn't speak. Recalling the incident last month, Chen Beiyi, one of 30 volunteers, admits to getting a fright when he saw Ye.

"It was totally not what we expected," Chen says. "We were in the classroom upstairs (at the hospital) and it was the first opportunity for us to put what we'd learnt into practice."

But it wasn't as easy as Chen thought. On seeing so many strange faces, Ye became hysterical. "Get away," she wildly shouted at the volunteers who were eager to lend her a hand. Her uncooperative attitude remained until Dai Wenlong, another volunteer, spoke calmly. With a tender voice, Dai showcased his outstanding skills in communication. "The point of suicide intervention is to build up a sense of trust between two people," he said later.

After Dai honestly introduced himself, with soft music playing in the background, Ye calmed down and began to speak. She talked about her boss and family and after a while some tension was relieved.

"Emotional release is an essential phase in suicide intervention," Dai adds. "Venting depression and anger through discussion is a good way to prevent another suicide attempt."

Ye is not the only one who needs help. Professor Hui Xiaoping, an emergency physician with the hospital, has received over 40 patients who tried to commit suicide since April.

"Depression is the main cause of suicide," Professor Hui says. "In a fast-paced modern society where people shoulder more pressure, suicide has become an expanding problem."

The World Health Organization reports that about 1 million people commit suicide around the world every year, and the number of those who attempt suicide is 10 to 20 times larger.

The worldwide suicide rate is about 16 per 100,000, making it the 13th most common cause of death. In China, the figures are equally distressing.

According to a survey conducted by the Beijing Psychological Crisis Research and Intervention Center, more than 200,000 people in China take their own lives every year.

The suicide rate in China is more than 20 per 100,000, making it the fifth cause of death in the country. Among the suicide, women in rural areas are the largest group. And China is the only country in the world where more women commit suicide than men.

WHO launched a global suicide prevention initiative in 1999, designating September 10 as "World Suicide Prevention Day" every year. "Sadly many people commit suicide on impulse," Professor Hui adds. "If intervention is timely, most suicidal thoughts can be prevented." But for Chinese people, suicide intervention is still a new term. Though commonly used in the United States, Japan and Sweden, many Chinese people are only learning about it through a TV program.

"Take My Word for It," a hot Hong Kong TV series starring Au-yeung Chun-wah and Cheung Chi-lam, vividly depicts a special team that is dedicated to stopping suicide attempts.

Its successful debut on the Chinese mainland has prompted discussion and thought about the issue. "To some extent, I was encouraged by the TV series," says a volunteer who declined to be named. The first batch of volunteers are trained in basic psychology, with practical lessons and presentation by noted psychological experts.

"In addition to a loving heart, all the volunteers are required to have psychology backgrounds," says doctor Shan Huaihai from the Xuhui District Mental Health Center, who is also the director of the Shanghai Suicide Intervention Group.

Made up of experienced psychologists in town, the group was established last year and began to recruit volunteers in June. It's the first of its kind in the city and follows similar moves in Beijing and Nanjing, Jiangsu Province. In the near future, the group hopes to send more volunteers to the major hospitals where doctors can mend bodies but not minds. "Without psychological aids a suicide threat still exists," Shan adds.

From October, the volunteers will offer free counseling services to patients at Shanghai Gongli Hospital every Saturday. Under the guidance of a psychologist, they will be there talk, listen and sometimes persuade.

"Many Chinese people stick to a traditional thought that you wash your dirty linen at home," Shan explains. "It's different from people in Western countries. Here it is considered embarrassing to ask for psychological services." Shan and his volunteers are fighting a funding battle as well.

Currently the group only receives funding from local hospitals like Gongli Hospital. "But it's not enough for us to conduct large-scale surveys and research in the future," Shan says. "We're now applying to the governmental to assist in suicide prevention programs."

"Local government attaches much importance to the psychological health of people," says Zhang Kan, an official with Shanghai Health Bureau. "A special mental counseling hot line and Website have already been established, and caring for the suicidal people is on our itinerary." Shan says while the suicide rate in Shanghai is not high -- around 10 per 100,000 -- it's still a task for the whole society. "People should never hesitate to extend their love and care to the people who are suicidal and in urgent need of help," he says.

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