Ending it all

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Psychologists warn increasing numbers of Vietnamese youth are contemplating suicide and the country is not well equipped to tackle the challenge


  Vietnamese youth participate in a flashmob dance in Hanoi on September 23. Increasing numbers of Vietnamese youth are experiencing feelings of isolation and depression leading to suicidal tendencies, experts warn. Photo: AFP

She walked in the rain without a raincoat, and her mother scolded her.

It should not have been a big deal, but it broke 15-year-old Nguyen's heart. She decided to end her life.

"I got a bottle of pesticides and hid it under my bed. That night, I was really sad, and my parents were quarreling, as usual. I decided to do it [commit suicide] and show them how wrong they were."

Her mother smelled the noxious chemicals on her daughter's breath and the family rushed the tenth-grader to the hospital.

"I still remember how terrified my sister and my parents were." She said. I cried with regret."

Nguyen got lucky. Not only did she escape an untimely end, but she was also helped by the Center for Psychological Crisis Prevention (PCP) in Hanoi to deal with her mental problem.

"When the crisis was over, I found that my silly attempt has resulted in a big debt for my family [in hospital fees]. My house is poor and I made it even poorer."

Nguyen told the PCP staff she has "grown up" and is taking more responsibly for herself and her relatives after recognizing the value of her life.

Not many Vietnamese teens are as fortunate as Nguyen; studies show the number of suicide attempts in the country has increased significantly over the last few years.

According to a report released last month by a group of doctors in Da Nang, there were 487 of suicide attempts in the central city in 2004, a four-fold increase over 2003.

Another report conducted by the Ho Chi Minh City Children Hospital 1 found 66 percent of suicide attempts in the city between 2001 and 2002 were committed by teens between 14 and 15 years old. Family conflicts were identified as the reason behind nearly 88 percent of the attempts.

Increasing deaths

The second Vietnamese Youth Assessment Survey (SAVY) (conducted in 2009,) revealed that the number of young people suffering depression and thoughts of suicide has increased significantly since the first SAVY was conducted in 2003.

The second surveyed included 10,044 respondents in the 14-25 age group in 63 cities and provinces and found more than 27 percent had gone through moments of deep grief and helplessness, and 21 percent had experienced a sense of hopelessness about their future.

More than four percent had thoughts of suicide, and such thoughts were predominantly reported by women and urban youths. A quarter of the 409 youths aged 1425 who had entertained thought of suicide reported that they had also attempted it.

The number of youths who reported suicide attempts was 102 people, more than two times the SAVY 1 figure of 42.

Results of a study called "Youth at risk: suicidal thoughts and attempts in Vietnam, China, and Taiwan" that was published in Journal of Adolescent Health in March also found suicidal thoughts were common among Asian youths; the highest levels were reported in more industrialized cities.

The rise in suicidal behavior is not specific to Vietnam. However, experts have expressed concern about the nation's preparedness in handling the issue in the coming years.

Globally, the World Health Organization (WHO) has called for action against suicide attempts after it estimated approximately 1.53 million people will die from suicide by the year 2020. It estimates a suicide death rate of 5 per 100,000 people in Vietnam, a country with a population of around 88 million.

Family role

Nguyen, the girl who attempted to commit suicide, said her problems began at birth because her parents had wanted a son.

"I felt that I should not have been born," she said, adding that domestic violence was another reason.

"My dad beat mom until she was unconscious. My mom used to hurt herself and attempted to commit suicide by poison once. And the walls of my house are broken everywhere because my dad hits everything whenever he gets angry."

HCMC-based psychologist Nguyen Thi Ngoc Giau said it would be a mistake that teen suicides and suicide attempts arise from petty gripes.

"It's just the tip of the iceberg. The actual reason is a long-term accumulation of negative thoughts leading to low awareness of the importance of living and meaning of life."

She said that in response to negative feelings, people have three options: suffering by themselves and isolating themselves from society (which has the highest possibility of suicide attempts); finding a "victim" and shedding their feelings violently on him or her; and sharing their troubles with people that they trust or having similar problems.

For teens in particular, their biological changes can trigger psychological instability, she said.

"They can try to forget their real life by playing online games or chatting, but this can only provide temporary relief. Family is the best solution. Parents should be loving and encourage children to share their troubles instead of being critical or scolding," she said.

Actions urged

At a conference on suicide prevention held in Hanoi early last month, PCP founder Nguyen Thi Van Anh called for immediate action to equip people and institutions with the ability to cope with challenges faced by local youth.

 "Vietnam has no professional system to prevent suicide and not many specialized agencies, organizations and experts. There is low awareness of the issue despite the fact that the problem is getting worse," she said.

Anh said that there is only a small number of people who commit suicide due to mental illness, while the rest of those with suicidal tendencies typically suffer from depression.

"A recent survey found 13 of 19 people committing suicide had attempted to share their intention with others but only three of them managed to talk to someone about it," she said.

Tran Tuan, director of the Research and Training Center for Community Development, decried the fact that there has been no study on children who tend to have suicidal thoughts so that early detection, intervention and prevention is possible.

"Family education is very important. Parents should help children develop a positive outlook," he said.

One mother complained to him about her high-school son. The son, who was usually obedient at home and a good student at school, suddenly revealed that he is unhappy all the time because his parents decide everything in his life.

"This case still has happy ending because he talked to his mother. In many other cases, the children suffer quietly, leading to depression and suicide," he said.

HELPING ONE WITH SUICIDAL THOUGHTS

Be quiet and listen!
People who feel suicidal want:
- Someone who takes time to really listen to them. Someone who will not judge, or give advice or opinions, but will give their undivided attention.
- Someone who will respect them and will not try to take charge. Someone who will treat everything in complete confidence.
- Someone who will make themselves available, put the person at ease and speak calmly. Someone who will reassure, accept and believe. Someone who will say: "I care."

People who feel suicidal do not want:
- To be alone. Rejection can make the problem seem ten times worse.
- To be advised. Don't analyze, compare, categorize or criticize.
- To be interrogated. Don't change the subject, don't pity or patronize. People who feel suicidal do not want to be rushed or put on the defensive.

Source: Center for Psychological Crisis Prevention - The center maintains a free consulting hotline (04) 3775 9336

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