Page last updated at 16:22 GMT, Friday, 7 November 2008

Family suicides on rise in Taiwan

By Cindy Sui
BBC News, Taipei

Five-year-old Ho Hung-an's parents loved him.

They bought him little plastic cartoon toys even though they were both unemployed and behind in paying rent.

Social worker with child
"At-risk" children are counselled by social workers

But in June, they took his life and their own by burning charcoal in their sealed apartment, causing them all to succumb to carbon monoxide poisoning.

Such shocking cases in which parents not only take their own lives, but those of their children, are on the rise in Taiwan, which already has one the highest suicide rates in Asia.

Experts who have studied the trend said most parents acted out of a deluded sense that it was better to spare their children the misery of living without anyone to take care of them.

"These cases are rare in the United States or Europe. They treat their kids as independent individuals," said Pan Yi-ju, a psychiatrist and researcher at the Taiwan Department of Health's Suicide Prevention Centre.

"When they want to kill themselves, they don't necessarily take their kids," she added.

"In eastern cultures, these cases are more frequent."

In the first 10 months of this year, there were 31 cases of attempted or successful murder-suicides involving child victims, a four-year high, according to the Child Welfare League Foundation (CWLF), a non-governmental organisation.

It compiled the statistics from government data and media reports.

Nineteen children have been killed in this way so far this year, the same figure as for the whole of 2007.

Financial woes

Social workers attribute the rise mainly to financial problems.

"In the suicide notes and police reports we study, most of the parents suffered some kind of financial pressure, including business failures, job losses and large debts," said Harold Li, the Foundation's chief coordinator of research and development.

Harold Li

Parents don't believe anyone in this world will take care of their children

Harold Li
Child Welfare League Foundation

The situation could deteriorate, he said, as Taiwan's already struggling economy begins to feel further pressure from the global financial crisis.

The unemployment rate in September hit a four-year high, while exports declined for the first time in years.

A large number of small or middle-sized enterprises have already shut down and economic indicators suggest the island is headed toward a recession.

"If the economic situation doesn't improve, these cases can become worse. So we're quite worried," said Li.

Suicide by burning charcoal in a closed room is the most common method used by despairing parents.

It is considered easier than other suicide methods and allows the family to die at the same time.

To ensure their children die, some parents strangle them while they are asleep before lighting the charcoal.

Others give the youngsters sleeping pills or put rat poison in their food.

Some perpetrators have been grandparents, struggling to cope with abandoned grandchildren they are unable to care for. One slit her grandchild's wrist.

Parents who choose to end their child's life often also suffer from emotional problems such as depression, and tend to be socially isolated, making it more difficult for them to get help.

Others do not want to burden their relatives with raising their children.

Cultural factors are also behind the disturbing trend, experts said.

"In Asian culture, parents think their children are their property. They think parents have the right to determine a child's life," said Mr Li.

"They think it's an act of goodwill. They don't believe anyone in this world will take care of their children. They lack trust in relatives, government or social agencies," he added.

In western countries, children are more commonly murdered in violent, revenge attacks against a spouse or an ex-partner.

In Taiwan, 42% of child murder-suicide cases this year involved both parents.

Statistics on such incidents are hard to come by as murder-suicides involving children are often not separated from general suicide figures, according to Ms Pan.

But she said it is clear the trend has been rising in Taiwan in the past decade, due in part to increasing knowledge about charcoal-burning suicide.

Public campaign

Shame also keeps parents from seeking financial or medical assistance.

Ho Hung-an's family could have qualified for welfare but for some reason they didn't apply
Police officer Hsiao Yu-hsi

"Usually the trigger is a tuition bill or late rent notice, which seem like a small matter, but in their despondent state, they don't believe anyone would help them," said Peng Yu-wen, a social worker with the CWLF who counsels parents and children who survive suicide attempts.

The CWLF has begun a campaign inviting the public to come up with ideas to reduce the alarming rise in suicides.

Social workers have also appealed to the government to address the issue.

And they have also called on all members of society to look out for those among them who could be at risk and not be afraid to help them.

At-risk children are also taught how to protect themselves.

"We teach them to spot signs, such as mum saying things like, 'I want to take you away with me'. We tell the kids to seek out a teacher, relative, friend of their parent or neighbour they can go to for help," said Ms Peng.

In the case of five-year-old Ho, no-one was there to help.

His parents, who sold arts and crafts trinkets on the street, had borrowed money from relatives in the past, but found they were unable to do so anymore, said Hsiao Yu-hsi, a police officer who, along with the landlady, discovered the family at the scene.

"They only had NT$1,000 [US$33] in their home, and no money in their bank account," said Mr Hsiao.

"They could have qualified for welfare but for some reason they didn't apply."

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Country profile: Taiwan
30 Jul 08 |  Country profiles

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