Elderly Suicide Rapidly Increasing in China’s Countryside

Faced with poverty, bad health, or loneliness, old people choose 'not to be a burden'
August 10, 2014 Updated: August 10, 2014

Suicide by the elderly is becoming a common phenomenon in rural China, according to a recent report.

A migrant worker took a seven-day leave from his job in the city after hearing that his old father living in the countryside was in critical condition. A few days after the son returned, his fathers’ health became stable. The son then said to his father, “Are you going to die or not? I only have seven days off, and that includes the time for your funeral.”

After hearing his son’s cold words, the father committed suicide. The son quickly finished the funeral just before his leave ended and returned to the city for work right away.

This is just one of many cases of elderly suicide collected in the state-funded research project “Sociological Study Of Rural Elderly Suicide,” according to the state-run China Youth Daily.

“The elderly suicide rate in rural areas has been increasing very fast since 2000… and the situation now is extremely severe,” said Liu Yanwu, the lead researcher of the project and an instructor in sociology in Wuhan University.

Beginning in 2008 the research was conducted for six years in over 40 countryside villages in 11 provinces including Hubei, Shandong, Jiangsu, Shanxi, and so on.

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In the first village the researchers visited, in Jingshan County of Jingmen City in central Hubei Province, a number of villagers said the same thing when being asked about whether there were unnatural deaths of elderly people. “Few of the elderly die naturally in our place,” was the response, Liu said.

In this village, “At least 30 percent of the elderly die from suicide, and this is just a conservative estimate.” Liu said. Just during the two weeks the researchers spent in the village, three older people died from suicide.

In one of the suicide cases in Jingshan County, a 69 year-old man committed suicide in the living room of his house by drinking pesticide while burning paper money to mourn himself.

A villager told Liu that the old man had a bad relationship with his son and daughter in-law and was afraid that they wouldn’t mourn him when he died. So, he did it for himself.

Senior people committing suicide in the village have become such a common thing that it is no longer shocking to local residents.

“We see this as a natural death,” a doctor in the village said. The doctor told Liu that many senior people chose to commit suicide after suffering severe illness in order not to be a burden to their children.

Even older people themselves have accepted the situation.

An old lady surnamed Chai said to Liu, “Old people in this place all have three sons—pesticide son, rope son, and water son. They are the most reliable sons.” The “three sons” are three major ways of committing suicide: drinking pesticide, hanging, and drowning.

“The more calm those people are about this phenomenon, the more frightening it is,” Liu told the daily paper.

Liu called the phenomenon a “sick suicide trend.” Three major reasons have caused the suicide cases of old people in the countryside—finances, bad health, and loneliness. Based on Liu’s data collection, 60 percent of the cases were related to the first two reasons, with many older people not wanting to burden their children.

Some of the children do not want the responsibility of caring for their elderly parents.

“My own burdens are heavy enough. How am I able to take care of the old ones?” a number of middle aged farmers told Liu.

“The way things are in Jingshan today is likely to be the situation in many other places tomorrow,” Liu said. Liu indicated that in order for the situation to change, the elderly should not be in situations where they are desperate from lack of financial or medical support, or from loneliness.

In 2013 China had over 200 million people over 60 years-old, which is 14.9 percent of the total population, according to China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs on a press conference in February this year. Seniors over 65 year-old make up 7.6 percent of the population, according to state news media.

The growth rate of the elderly population has dramatically increased due to lower mortality and the one-child policy.

“Everyone gets old,” Liu said. “Elderly people should live better lives, and pass away with dignity instead of using such abnormal methods. It’s too sad.”