More than seven months have passed since the devastating earthquake in China that left almost 88,000 people dead or missing. Experts say this is the peak period for suicide attempts among the survivors, and some alarming trends are emerging.
Every two minutes, one person in China commits suicide. The country has one of the world's highest suicide rates — and it could get higher still.
'Their Hearts Became Fragile'
Yang Jun and his wife, Zhu Juhua, were lucky to survive the deadly earthquake. Their two children — a 13-year-old boy and an 8-year-old girl — were unharmed.
But the disaster turned out to be just the start of their problems. Their new two-story house, which had cost $30,000 to build, was declared dangerous. They were heavily in debt and began arguing about who was to blame. Yang Jun's father, Yang Defu, says the quake traumatized his son.
"My son was very depressed after losing his house. He wasn't in the right frame of mind to earn money. So he stayed at home and tried to recycle building materials from the house," says Yang Defu.
"My daughter-in-law was working as a seamstress, and she got very angry at my son for not working. Their relations became bad. We asked the village leaders to mediate, but we all failed," he says.
That failure had tragic consequences. On Nov. 15, the couple was found dead, huddled together in bed at their ruined house. Initial police investigations concluded that Yang Jun had suffocated his wife, then electrocuted himself. Yang Defu says he knows what to blame for their deaths.
"They were caused by the May 12 earthquake. Their house was lost; their hearts became fragile. They weren't happy with each other. They had conflicts," he says.
A Community Transformed
Hands shaking, Yang Defu produces the official police report on the deaths of his son and daughter-in-law. The verdict: accidental death. This absence of culpability actually reflects a shared sense of responsibility. Everyone had known the couple was quarreling. And they were living just behind a medical center. One neighbor, who didn't want to be named, told us she feels guilty for what happened.
"On the day they died, I'd gone up to the temporary refugee camp. If I'd been here instead and heard the quarreling, I would have gone over to calm them down. And maybe this wouldn't have happened," she says.
The neighbor washes clothes, squatting in the doorway to her house, watching over a toddler. In this settlement of 13,000 survivors, little work is available and most people now realize that given their huge losses, life will never be normal again. There are anecdotal reports that alcohol consumption has gone up among quake victims. One Chinese psychologist estimates that up to one-quarter of earthquake victims could be suffering from depression and anxiety. As the dead couple's neighbor comments sadly, their behavior wasn't even unusual.
"Many people have changed since the quake. Everyone quarrels a lot," she says.
Pressure Mounts On Officials, Too
As reconstruction begins, there is another worrying trend — a recent spate of deaths among officials dealing with post-quake reconstruction. One official died when an artery burst in his brain; the initial investigation blamed overwork. Two other officials recently committed suicide. One of them, Dong Yufei from Beichuan, lost his 12-year-old son in the quake. In his suicide note, he wrote: "I feel too much pressure from life and work. I cannot hold on. I just want a good rest."
"We can only feel sympathy over his suicide," says Wang Jian, a colleague of Dong's in the Beichuan government office. "Because the earthquake is over — and we survived that, so what else is there to fear?"
Wang says 90 percent of his co-workers lost family members in the quake. The government has been trying to help them, he says; he has undergone 10 days of counseling in Beijing. But when thousands of people need relocation housing and there's a new city to build from scratch, pressure is unavoidable.
"The whole country is supporting us. The whole world is supporting us. If we don't do a good job, we'll let everyone down. So that piles on the pressure," Wang says.
Deaths Provide Tragic Lessons
Camping in the ruins of his house, 62-year-old Yang Defu watches his wife cooking a meal. The two are now starting over after the murder-suicide of their son and daughter-in-law. This time, they're bringing up two young orphans, without a source of income or a proper house. But Yang Defu's biggest worry is that lessons might not be learned from his own personal tragedy.
"If people are depressed because of the quake and they don't get psychological help, more cases like this might happen," he says.
In the refugee camps, some counseling has been offered, especially in the schools, where children saw their classmates crushed and killed under collapsed buildings. But the authorities have been overwhelmed by other urgent pressures, such as making sure people have food and shelter, and the scale of all of the needs is still unimaginable.