Page last updated at 09:36 GMT, Wednesday, 1 July 2009 10:36 UK

Concern over Bhutan suicide rate

Bhutanese man, Thimpu
Bhutan attaches huge significance to 'Gross National Happiness'

The authorities in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan say that they are increasingly worried about a recent spate of suicides.

Last week alone there were three suicides of two girls and a man.

The country's main newspaper, Kuensel, says that in January there were 15 suicides and seven in February.

Correspondents say the figures are shock for a country that puts "Gross National Happiness" (GNH) at the heart of government policy.

Mental illness

"People tend to commit suicide when they lack the social skills to cope with stress," psychiatrist DK Nirola told Kuensel.

He said that old age, unemployment and depression are the most common causes of suicide which is far higher among males than females.

However excessive alcohol consumption, money worries and mental illness are also thought to be significant factors.

Under Bhutanese law, committing suicide or attempting to commit suicide is not punishable. However, abetting a suicide is regarded as a crime.

Police provide counselling to those who have attempted suicide and they or their family are asked to give an undertaking, in writing, that it will not happen again.

Keunsel found that the problem is particularly acute in rural areas.

"In some villages, committing suicide has almost become a norm," it says.

Prayer flags above Thimpu
The Buddhist faith frowns on people committing suicide

Official figures show that the highest number of suicides was in 2001, when 58 people killed themselves. The lowest number was in 2006, when 34 people committed suicide. Bhutan's population is 682,000 people.

The figures have concerned the government - which is expanding a counselling service in schools to help teenagers who feel depressed.

Correspondents say that the figures are surprising, especially when the country's two main religions - Hinduism and Buddhism - believe that a person who commits suicide will not be reborn as human being.

The figures are also something of a setback for the policy of successive governments to promote Gross National Happiness.

"It means there has to be a better balance between the spiritual and the material," Karma Tsheetem, the secretary of the Gross National Happiness Commission told the BBC's Chris Morris last year.

"Whatever choices we make from now on - whether it's to do with urbanisation or globalisation or the type of economy we develop - we will make sure it is in harmony with our tradition, our culture and the environment."

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