Approach suicide stories gingerly [China Daily: Hong Kong Edition]
(China Daily: Hong Kong Edition Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) One of my frustrations living in China for three years was not being able to get accurate information. Sometimes the reason was badly worded surveys and other times suspicious research.
Recently, a news story, "Suicide among elderly increases" and an opinion article, "Cut suicide rate by aiding rural elderly", published by China Daily, caused me to scratch my head in wonder. The news story is based on the research of sociologist Liu Yanwu, of Wuhan University, who spent six years studying the issue of suicides by senior citizens in China.
Liu found that the suicide rate among the rural elderly has increased from 100 per 100,000 to 500 per 100,000 in two decades. That's an extraordinary and, frankly, unbelievable, increase, which Liu attributes to "poor quality of life". In his follow-up commentary, Liu writes that elderly people account for 80 percent of the suicides committed in rural areas. He also says that addressing senior citizens' problems is "a major task in the country's long-term battle to curb the rising suicide rate in the country".
Now here's the problem. While Liu offers convenient ad hoc explanations for his findings, including the decline of filial piety and the failure of the pension system to adequately compensate individuals, he doesn't mention the methods by which he reached the conclusions. The only hint as to how he got his data are narratives of trips he took to various villages.
In June, The Economist published an article on suicides in China, "Back from the edge - A dramatic decline in suicides". While the magazine does not specifically identify the overall rate of suicide among elderly people in rural areas, it does imply that the highest rate of suicide in the country as a whole is among rural men aged between 70 and 74. But that rate is only 41.7 per 100,000 or about 12 times lower than what Liu suggests.
Occasionally, the Western media fasten on to a "Chinese" story giving credence to bad science. When I was in Beijing in 2010, several highly publicized suicide cases took place in the world's largest electronics company, Foxconn, which makes iPhones and iPads, as well as many products and components of Microsoft, IBM, Samsung, Amazon, HP, Dell and Sony.
What was generally not reported anywhere in the rush to blame Foxconn and its supposed insensitivity to workers was the fact that the company actually had a lower rate of suicide, percentage-wise, than the country as a whole even when the suicide rate in the factory was at its highest.
But highlighting corporate malfeasance is not limited to China. Our needs to fit explanations to facts, even if they don't fit, explains why when I lived in France, the French media exaggerated the number of suicides at France Telecom. The French telecom giant has more than 100,000 employees and there were widely disseminated reports in 2009 about suicides there and, as in the Foxconn case, the suicides were not particularly out of line with the national average.
Reporting about suicides has a man-bites-dog appeal that makes it hard for the media to resist the lure of publishing suggestive conclusions about suicide causes and potential preventions. Without good research support, however, newspapers should approach suicide stories gingerly.
The author is a psychology columnist.
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