Suicide rates in China, once among the highest in the world, have fallen by more than half over the last decade. The dramatic decline happened mostly because so many people moved from the rural countryside, where suicide, often by ingesting pesticides, is common—to the country’s sprawling cities, where it is more rare.
While China’s neighbors like South Korea and Japan launch campaigns to curb their worryingly high suicide rates, China has done little to improve mental health. Yet suicide rates have fallen from as much as 23.2 per 100,000 people in 1999 to 9.8 per 100,000 in 2011, according to a new study by researchers from Hong Kong University. “The decline is very significant and has outperformed many countries which try to achieve a 20% reduction in 10 years time,” one of the study’s co-author’s, Paul Yip told Quartz.
Between 1995 and 1999, suicides in rural China accounted for 93% of the total (pdf), a figure that has dropped to around 79% in the period between 2009 and 2011. And as men and women have moved to larger cities for work, the total number of suicides has also fallen dramatically. Researchers have attributed the decrease to higher incomes, better education, less family pressure (since many urban migrants live away from their close family members), and especially a lack of easy access to pesticides, which accounted for 62% of suicides in the country between 1996 and 2000.
Also notable is the fall in suicides among women in China, one of the few countries where suicide rates among women are higher than men. (That has been blamed on everything from the one-child policy to family pressure to marry.) Between 1995 and 1999, about 37.8 women per 100,000 between the ages of 15 and 34 committed suicide a year, but in 2011, that number fell to just over 3 per every 100,000. A study (pdf) released in 2012 on suicides in Shandong province bears out that trend:
Still, there are reasons to worry. Researchers at HKU observed that suicide rates have begun to increase among elderly people and young males in both urban and rural areas. “The recent rapid changes in socioeconomic conditions could have increased stress levels and resulted in more suicides, especially among the elderly,” they concluded. “Despite the significant reduction reported here, the latest figures suggest the declining trend is reversing.”