HONG KONG/SEOUL (Reuters) - Chan Kiu-hung thought about committing suicide when she discovered that her retirement nest egg had been lost with the collapse of Lehman Brothers.
“I was in despair. I lost my appetite and couldn’t sleep at all. We lost all our money. It was very painful,” said Chan, who came out of retirement to work as a maid, and her husband as a lift attendant, to make ends meet.
Suicides generally increase during times of economic troubles, experts say, and Asians may be particularly susceptible as the region has among the world’s highest suicide rates.
With this in mind, Asian governments are setting up hotlines and counseling centers to help those hit hardest by the financial crisis and the subsequent economic downturn.
In South Korea, a commuter train operator is even installing doors blocking access to railway tracks due to a sharp increase in people committing suicide by jumping in front of trains.
Millions of people in Asia have lost their jobs and retirees and other small investors have lost their life savings due to plunging stock markets and the collapse of investment funds.
Since the full force of the financial crisis hit Asian shores late last year, Paul Yip, a mental health and suicide prevention specialist in Hong Kong, has seen a jump in the number of patients coming to his clinic for help to cope with the downturn.
“Work is very important to the Asian because we don’t have very good social security and losing one’s job is associated with the loss of ‘face’. So the trauma can be great,” said Yip.
At the same time, he added, many Asians are ashamed to seek expert help.
“In the West, therapy is very common. Here, you are thought to be crazy if you see a psychiatrist. Asians tend not to be as expressive and depression is very under-diagnosed,” Yip said.
Among developed nations, South Korea and Japan have the world’s highest suicide rates, or 24.8 and 24 per every 100,000 people respectively, followed by Belgium at 21.3 and Finland at 20.35. The United States stands at 11.1.
South Korea’s suicide rate nearly doubled during the Asian financial crisis 10 years ago with experts blaming it on stress caused by job and income losses.
With South Korea about to enter its first recession in a decade and exports suffering their biggest ever drop, the country’s health ministry has launched a suicide prevention program.
Officials were worried as health ministry figures showed that the number of people contemplating suicide due to financial problems almost doubled in 2008, compared to 2007.
“There is a fundamental connection between economic hardships and our high suicide rate,” said a ministry official, who declined to be named.
The official said the plan, which calls for increasing the number of health care professionals and counseling centers, aims to cut the suicide rate by 20 percent by 2013.
Separately, Seoul Metro, a subway operator that runs four lines in the capital, has stepped up the installation of automatic doors on station platforms to prevent people from killing themselves by jumping in front of trains.
“So far this year, there has been a greater number of subway suicides than usual, and I believe this reflects the gloomy social atmosphere,” said an official with Seoul Metro, who asked not to be named due to the sensitive subject matter.
“Installing screen doors is the only way to initially block suicide attempts by jumping off the platform. So we moved forward the plan to install the doors by one year so screen doors will be set up at every station we operate by the end of this year,” the official added.
In Japan, some half a million contract workers are expected to be laid off in the six months until April. The industrial center of Aichi in central Japan, home to Toyota car factories and other manufacturers, has been particularly hard hit.
An official in Aichi said the number of people bringing their problems to mental health centers rose by nearly 15 percent in December, compared with the same period in 2007.
Japan’s suicide rate rose sharply during a severe recession in the late 1990s when guarantees of lifetime employment collapsed, there were mass retrenchments and university graduates struggled to find jobs.
Suicide rates have gone up by 60 percent worldwide in the past 45 years and 90 percent of all cases are associated with depression and substance abuse, the World Health Organization (WHO) said. Each year, a million people commit suicide.
Hong Kong started special hotlines in October for people suffering from the financial crisis and it opened “depression clinics” in some public hospitals this month.
“The clinics were opened in expectation of more people suffering depression because of the crisis. The government has also ordered more anti-depression drugs,” said William Chui, education director at the Society of Hospital Pharmacists.
Doctors in Hong Kong are reporting seeing more patients with psychosomatic symptoms such as diarrhea, tinnitus, headaches, shortness of breath, insomnia and chest pain.
“The situation is spilling over into homes. We see couples quarrelling when the real problem is job insecurity,” said psychiatrist Dominic Lee in Hong Kong.
Pinky Yung of Caritas Family Crisis Line & Education Center said many people lost all or most of their savings. Others lost their businesses, jobs or were lumped with multiple mortgages.
Of the 2,301 patients the center treated since mid-October, eight percent had suicidal thoughts, it said.
“Many of them were very thrifty in the past and they have lost all their money and the security that they spent all their lives building,” Yung said.
“Those with family support, hobbies and work cope better but those without get very depressed. Most are middle aged so they can’t go back to earn the money they lost. Their problems are now insomnia, insecurity and what is going to happen in future.”
(Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Seoul and Isabel
Reynolds in Tokyo; Editing by Megan Goldin)