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LOOKING at matters of life and death through race-tinted lenses can be a double-edged sword. An ethnic perspective is sometimes necessary to analyse the sociological reasons behind a certain trend. At other times, however, this only perpetuates stereotypes without providing any insight.
Recent news about rising suicide rates in Malaysia may prompt us to think about whether race disaggregation holds any answers.
On June 5, the New Straits Times reported Health Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai as saying that suicide rates in Malaysia were on the increase.
He also noted that the suicide rate was found to be highest among Chinese (48 per cent), followed by Indians (21 per cent), Malays (13 per cent) and others (2.4 per cent).
Even if we take into account that the higher percentage of suicides among the Chinese is due to the fact that the Chinese population is larger than the Indian population, there's no escaping the fact that suicide rates among the Chinese are still significantly higher.
What could be driving so many Chinese -- especially those in their prime, aged 24 to 44 -- to take their own lives?
A 1999 Universiti Hospital study analysed suicide patterns among the different races and proposed several possible reasons for the different suicide rates among races.
"Religion appears to be one of the important factors that control the rate of suicide. Chinese are mostly Buddhists and Buddhism, similar to Hinduism, does not censure suicide and hence, it is not seriously considered as a sin," the study author postulated.
However, this generalisation has its limitations. There are different Buddhist practices depending on which teaching one follows.
Many Chinese are also Taoists, Confucianists and Christians, and therefore may have different beliefs regarding suicide.
The study also pointed to certain social characteristics associated with the Chinese, such as being "materialistic and achievement-oriented, and mainly concerned about family interests".
This leads to pressure being heaped on children from a young age, contributing to anxiety, depression and high risk of suicide if one fails to achieve expectations.
These are general stereotypes of the Chinese community. It is well known that we give priority to financial security and academic achievements because of the high level of competition for local university places and jobs.
Some cases of suicide among the Chinese have also been traced back to those who borrowed huge amounts of money from loan sharks and became increasingly desperate as they were unable to pay back their debts.
It is interesting to look at suicide patterns in China to see whether they correlate with what is happening in the Chinese community here. In China, suicide is more prevalent among young women than young men, in contrast to Malaysia where men outnumber women three to one.
However, suicide rates in China are lower among divorced and widowed women, and higher among those with more education.
Socioeconomic and cultural values may be considered risk factors, but they are not direct causes of suicide. There are many other factors that eventually push an individual over the edge. As several experts have explained, suicide attempts tend to escalate until the person succeeds with the final act.
However, if a person can access the healthcare system for psychological counselling or receive support from the family and community, perhaps his/her suicidal intentions can be mitigated.
Being fixated on social or cultural stereotypes gets us nowhere. We need to look at real solutions, such as educating parents and society to look out for signs of stress and depression in children. There have been many calls to modify our education system to be less exam-oriented, which puts less pressure on children.
Finally, we should take a good, hard look at the integrity of our healthcare and social support system, and whether they are strong enough to keep us from falling into the abyss.