Determinants of Suicide Ideation: A Comparison of Chinese and American College Students

Article excerpt

The suicide rate among American youth, especially those 15 to 24 years of age, has increased dramatically during the past three decades. According to data published by the National Center for Health Statistics (1991), suicide is the third leading cause of death among adolescents aged 15-19, and from 1957 to 1987 the suicide rate for 15 to 24-year-olds increased from 4 to 12.9 per 100,000. During the same period, the suicide rate for the general population rose from 9.8 to 12.7 per 100,000.

Among the 15 major predictors of suicide (Maris et al., 1991), depression and alcoholism are ranked first and second, while suicide ideation and prior suicide attempts are ranked third and fourth. Since nonfatal suicide attempts, talk about suicide or dying, and explicit plans or preparations for dying or suicide all increase suicide risk, an improved understanding of adolescent suicide ideation and suicide attempts may lead to more effective prevention.

This study compared factors underlying suicide ideation between Chinese and American college students. Since comparative studies usually provide insights into culture-specific phenomena, this study is designed to provide insight into the culture factors that directly impact suicide ideation.

The sociological literature on Chinese adolescent suicides or suicide ideation is scarce at best. The limited research (we are aware of only one study as reviewed later in this article) in China has been confined to completed suicides rather than suicide ideation, and descriptive frequencies and case studies rather than hypothesis testing or multi-factor analysis. The dearth of suicide research on China results from two basic factors: the short history of Chinese sociology; and information control by the Chinese government. Soon after the Chinese communist takeover in 1949, sociology was abolished as a result the government's support of the Soviet model. Joseph Stalin had earlier denounced sociology as a "bourgeois pseudo-science" and banned the field from Soviet academia. More importantly, there was no room for sociology in the People's Republic of China, where Marxism-Leninism-Maoism was deemed the only appropriate rubric for social analysis. The ban on sociology was not lifted until 1979, after the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), with the death of Mao Zedong.

The political fallout of the 1989 Tiananmen incident created new problems for Chinese sociology. Some conservative communist leaders blamed sociology for the democratic movement. Sociology is once again accused of being an ideology designed to spread doubts about socialism. Data on social problems and deviance, which were controlled and kept secret since the beginning of the communist regime, are now completely removed from public and academic access. It is hoped that this study will contribute to filling this research gap on suicide ideation in the Chinese population by analyzing predictors and making comparison with an American sample.


Researchers who study suicide have traditionally used two theoretical models: the social structural and the psychological (Braucht, 1979). The social structural model views suicide as the result of environmental determinants, and the research focuses on environmental factors which distinguish suicidal from nonsuicidal subjects. The psychological model views suicide as the result of psychological determinants, and the research focuses on personal characteristics or traits which distinguish suicidal from nonsuicidal subjects.

In criticizing the common psychological perspective's belief that depression causes suicidal behavior, Durkheim ([1897] 1951) argued that the suicide rate among males is higher than that of females, while females are more likely to be depressed. According to Durkheim's analysis, suicide rates vary inversely with social integration. While many persons who become suicidal have experienced major life stress and depression, most who experience similar stress and depression do not commit suicide or think about it. …