Suicide soars in the midst of 'paradise' isle gets a bad name for suicide stains the image of tops world suicide league

Sri Lanka's tropical beauties mask a population giving way to despair, writes Jan McGirk

Teen Beauty Returns Ring, Drinks Poison. Husband Kills Self When Wife Wanders. Gambler Gives Up after Losing Last Bet.

Lurid headlines like these used to be daily newspaper fodder in Sri Lanka, but all reports of suicide have vanished from the country's six government- controlled papers, following a recent directive from President Chandrika Kumaratunge's private office. The two state television channels and government radio were gagged as well.

By suppressing these titillating accounts of how lovesick and despairing Sri Lankans kill themselves, the president hopes, others might be discouraged from copying them. Sri Lanka needs to try something to bring down what may be the highest suicide rate in the world: according to a recent study by Colombo University, 46 of every 100,000 Sri Lankans kill themselves, putting the country significantly ahead of Hungary (38.6 per 100,000) and Finland, which attract international concern due to their abnormally high number of suicides.

Sociologists have often blamed gloomy northern climes for triggering suicidal angst. The rate is significantly lower in most of Latin America and southern Europe, and Caribbean nations such as Barbados and the Bahamas are near the bottom of figures compiled by the World Health Organisation. But Sri Lanka - which is omitted from the WHO statistics because it has not submitted figures for a decade - is a stereotypical tropical isle, with coral reefs, coconut palms and green tea gardens.

Something other than the climate is at work, and the major stress factor is the relentless and brutal civil war which has set the Tamil minority against the ruling Sinhalese for the past 13 years. But that alone would not be enough to account for Sri Lanka's high suicide rate. What pushes it to the top of the table are the myriad of domestic tragedies: the cuckolded husbands who drink insecticide, the abused wives who hang themselves by their saris, the unemployed men who end it all after betting the month's rent on a losing horse. In other wars it has often been noted that the civilian suicide rate declines, but not here.

Researchers at Colombo University, headed by a forensic surgeon, Hemamal Jayawardena, set out to determine why so many Sri Lankans kill themselves. The study revealed that suicides are most common in the northern and eastern portions of the island, where ethnic violence has not let up in more than a decade.

The Tamil Tigers, led by the mysterious Velupillai Prabakharan, are notorious for their fanaticism; the elite Black Tigers carry cyanide pills around their necks in case of capture. Suicide bombings by the Tigers are frequent, and government soldiers who must face the suicide squads have a particularly high rate of self-destruction. Deaths among fighters on both sides can cause a loss of hope among their families, bringing more suicides.

The war has also damaged the economy. High achievers flee to employment elsewhere if they can, and the research shows that the long-term unemployed are at a higher risk of committing suicide. In contrast to neighbouring India, Sri Lanka is a highly literate society - more than 90 per cent can read and write - but that gives the disadvantaged a keener awareness of their plight.

Across the island, the most prevalent method of suicide is swallowing insecticide, which is on sale at even the remotest village shop. Strangulation is also common, particularly among women suicides, who typically are found dangling from the ceiling fans, saris knotted round their necks.

Sri Lanka is the only Buddhist nation in south Asia, and some claim that Buddhism's belief in reincarnation might make suicide appear less final. The faith's proponents deny this, saying that death by one's own hand postpones nirvana, because it interrupts the natural cycle of new lives. In any case, the study showed that suicide in Sri Lanka cuts across barriers of religion, caste and ethnicity.

This has brought the part played by the press under scrutiny. "The role of suggestion in suicide has been well documented abroad," pointed out Niresh Sumadasa, a Colombo sociologist. The press began dwelling on lurid personal stories in the late 1980s, when censorship stopped them reporting any military news. Editors filled the gap with articles on jilted lovers killing themselves, and found that they struck a sinister chord.

Voices
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
voicesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping the First Minister up at night?
Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

Voices
voicesApple continually kill off smaller app developers, and that's no good for anyone
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style
life

News
ScienceGallery: Otherwise known as 'the best damn photos of space you'll see till 2015'
Travel
travelWhy Japan's love hotels are thriving through an economic downturn
Life and Style
fashion

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

Life and Style
Alexander McQueen A/W 2014
fashionPolitics aside, tartan is on-trend again this season
Arts and Entertainment
Rapper Jay Z performs on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury in 2008
musicSinger sued over use of the single-syllable sample in 'Run This Town'
Sport
Joel jumps over the board...and into a giant hole
footballFrom joy to despair in a matter of seconds
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC
tv

Much-loved cartoon character returns - without Sir David Jason

Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me
tv

Actress to appear in second series of the hugely popular crime drama

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer your expertise as Trustee for The Society of Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Promising volunteer Trustee op...

Email Designer

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Psychology Teacher

£110 - £130 per hour: Randstad Education Reading: Psychology Teacher needed fo...

Food Technology Teacher

£85 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Randstad Education are curren...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week