Suicide Rates May Rise in Japan, Korea Amid Turmoil

By Jason Gale and Kanoko Matsuyama

Oct. 15 (Bloomberg) -- Job losses caused by the global credit crunch may compel more people to kill themselves in Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong, according to a researcher who studied suicide rates during Asia's currency crisis a decade ago.

Suicides climbed about 40 percent among men in all three locations in 1998 compared with a year earlier, and rose about 20 percent among women, said Shu-sen Chang, a psychiatrist with the U.K.'s University of Bristol. The increases correlated with a surge in unemployment and an economic slump triggered by currency devaluations in Asia in mid-1997, he said.

``Around the time of the recession, we saw an acute rise in the unemployment rate and these changes seemed to be associated with the economic crisis and the rise in the suicide rate,'' Chang said in a telephone interview yesterday. ``We concluded that changes in unemployment rates might contribute to some of the rise in the suicide rate.''

The current turmoil in financial markets risks creating a new wave of suicides in Asia, particularly among working-age men, Chang said. The region accounts for 60 percent of the world's suicides, according to the World Health Organization. Hong Kong opened 24-hour hotlines this week to counsel people with ``emotional and family problems'' from personal financial crises.

``Just like with the stock market, people panic -- they jump to the conclusion that all is lost,'' said Adrian Wang, a psychiatrist whose practice in Singapore has attracted more patients ``expressing fears and concerns about their future'' during the past two weeks.

`No Way Out'

``Suicide occurs when you feel that all doors are closed and there is no way out except to end your life,'' Wang said by telephone today. ``There usually is a way out, but depression casts such a negative light on things that you feel there is no way out of the hole you have dug yourself into.''

Only one in four people in Japan with depressive illness seeks medical help for the condition, according to Fuji Keizai Co., a Tokyo-based research company. Even so, sales of antidepressants will reach 88.9 billion yen ($875 million) this year, quadruple the value in 1999, when mood stabilizers were first sold in Japan.

In 1998, the number of suicides per 100,000 people in Japan soared 34 percent from a year earlier, according to statistics by the National Police Agency.

``More middle-aged men, including company executives, committed suicide from bankruptcies starting in 1998,'' Yukio Saito, director of Japan's Federation of Helplines, said by telephone. ``The number of suicides remains at this level because of continuing problems with economic conditions in Japan.''

The country's economy is heading toward a recession and has contracted in 10 of the past 40 quarters.

Money Worries

Financial problems are among motivating forces in about half the suicides in Asia, compared with 20 percent to 30 percent in Europe and North America, said Paul Siu-Fai Yip, director of Hong Kong's Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention.

Hong Kong's economic growth slowed to 4.2 percent in the second quarter, the slowest pace in almost five years, as exports, investment and domestic consumption weakened.

``We've learned from the past and are preparing ourselves'' for the possibility of more suicides, Yip said in a telephone interview today. ``If the recent drop of the Hong Kong economy continues, our suicide rate may climb.''

The world's largest financial institutions have posted $636 billion of losses and writedowns since the collapse of the U.S. subprime-mortgage market. Banks worldwide have slashed more than 137,000 jobs since June 2007, as companies including Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. collapsed.

Loan Sharks

In South Korea, television actor Ahn Jae Hwan, 36, was found dead in his car in an assumed suicide in September. Police are investigating Ahn's death after magazine Sisa In cited his widow as saying she had been threatened by loan sharks after Ahn failed to repay debts that may have amounted to 3 billion won to 6 billion won ($2.4 million to $4.8 million).

Four weeks later, actress Choi Jin Sil, 39, committed suicide at her Seoul home amid Internet rumors that she was one of the people who had lent Ahn money, according to police. Choi was one of the most famous stars for two decades in South Korea, which has the highest suicide rate among developed nations, according to a June 2008 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Chang's study, which is under review for publication, will be presented at an international meeting on suicide prevention in Hong Kong later this month, he said. It's based on an analysis of suicides from 1985 to 2006 in Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand.


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