Suicide among the elderly in East Asia on the rise

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Suicide is a major social and public health issue in many East Asian countries. As teachers in South Korea, suicide among adolescents and young adults (our students' age) was often a topic of conversation in the expat community, both as a growing crisis and a phenomenon that we could not easily relate to because of vast cultural differences. Individualism is highly prized among most Westerners, so the concept that excessive social pressure and inability to meet the expectations of relatives drove people to kill themselves was alien to most of us.

Suicide rates per 100,000 by country. Image credit: Wikipedia.

A recent article from GlobalPost, however, focuses on a slightly different demographic: suicide among
the elderly. Paradoxically, however, the rising rates of suicide in this group are not going up in poor countries but in rich ones. The WHO found higher rates among the elderly of China, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, South Korea and Singapore, rather than less-developed ones like Vietnam and Sri Lanka.

There are general reasons in addition to country-specific ones. In many of these countries, a sharp drop in the birth rate has led to younger generations being disproportionately burdened with care of the elderly, whether the rates fell naturally (e.g., Japan or South Korea) or through governmental efforts like China's one-child policy. Older people also struggle with the disintegration of the family unit that comes with rapid economic growth - China again is an example where younger people migrate to urban centers, leaving the elderly in the rural villages, often without caregivers. Certain other scenarios are country-specific, like the SARS outbreak in Hong Kong, which saw the elderly committing suicide so as not to be a burden on their families. Japan also has a long and somewhat unique history of honorable suicide. The article goes on to examine the some of the strategies to address the issue, like ramping up social services and activities for older populations.

On a rather shocking side note, some research on the internet led me to the factoid that Greenland has the world's highest suicide rates among both men and women.

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