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Suicide Is a Growing Public Health Problem


By Elaine Cassel

In this country, we would call it murder. In Japan, it's known as "family suicide," a euphemism for parents taking the lives of their children when they end their own lives. And it’s a growing problem.

Twenty-seven-year-old Hironori Iijima, and his 29-year-old wife, Hiroko, had suffered a series of financial and personal problems. Hironori had not worked steadily in years. They recently had their fourth—and unplanned—child, and in November their home burned to the ground. They had separated, each going to live with their respective parents. There was talk of divorce. One evening in April, Hironori and Hiroko asked Hironori's parents to keep the baby. They took the older children with them and said they were going to see Hiroko's parents. They never got there.

With three children in the back seat and his wife sitting next to him, Hironori stepped on the gas as the car approached a fishing pier. The vehicle jumped a curb at the end of a fishing pier and flew into the water. According to stunned fisherman standing on the pier, the children clawed at the windows and yelled for help until the car sank into the river.

The concept of family honor is so engrained in Japanese life that dishonor is indeed a fate worse than death. The ritual of taking one's children to death as well stems from the same sense of honor and duty—to spare the living relatives from the obligation to raise and support surviving children. In Japan, killing a child as part of a family suicide is the leading cause of deaths attributable to child abuse. The ancient Japanese law that a child under the age of 7 is not a fully formed being may help explain why the deaths of these children are not considered murder.

Japan has one-half the population of the United States, yet in 1998 it had 3,000 more suicides than those reported in the United States. Of the almost 33,000 Japanese suicides reported 1998, 720 were children, most of whom accompanied their parents to death. Suicide is increasing in Japan, attributable in part to the number of men losing their jobs to a recession.

Suicide is on the rise in the United States as well, particularly in children ages 10 to 14 and among men over 65. In July, 1999, Surgeon General of the United States David Satcher released a report entitled The Surgeon General's Call To Action To Prevent Suicide: 1999. Calling suicide a growing public health problem, the report is part of an initiative to implement a comprehensive national strategy for suicide prevention. The report cites 49 research studies dealing with the demographics, risk factors, and appropriate interventions for suicidality.

If a friend or family member talks of suicide, take it seriously. It's a fallacy that people who talk about suicide don't attempt it. To find out the truth about other suicide myths, and to learn the warning signs and how to help those in trouble, read the report online at

http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/calltoaction/calltoaction.htm.

Source: Struck, D. (2000, May 1). For Japanese, Suicide Can Be a Family Matter. The Washington Post, pp. A1, 20.


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