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Divorced women less likely to commit suicide in India

June 22, 2012 | 12:55 pm

In India, women who were divorced, widowed or separated from their husbands are less likely to commit suicide than married women –- the exact opposite of what researchers have found in the United States, according to a study.

The surprising results of the study, published this week in the journal Lancet, underscore how many of the conclusions reached about suicide through studying wealthy, industrialized countries do not apply elsewhere in the world.

Richer states in India had higher suicide rates, whereas suicide has been linked to poverty in wealthier countries. People in rural areas of India are much more prone to suicide; the same pattern hasn’t been seen in the West.

Things that were “assumed to be universal risk factors for suicide can, in fact, vary greatly between cultures and over time,” Michael R. Phillips and Hui G. Cheng, who did not conduct the study, wrote in a separate Lancet commentary. The research “will continue to challenge conventional wisdom about suicide and help put a global face on our understanding of this important public health problem.”

Some of the new findings from India, such as the lower rates of suicide among divorced women and widows, echoed earlier studies in China. Others did not: The elderly are more likely to commit suicide in China, but not in India.

While the study sheds light on who takes their lives in India, what isn’t clear is why. The vast gulf between different parts of the country points to as yet unknown factors, wrote lead author Vikram Patel, professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

One possibility is that Indians in more developed, educated communities suffer greater disappointment when their aspirations are “unmet by the reality faced by young people in a rapidly changing society where jobs may be higher-paying but less secure and where social networking more accessible but loneliness more common,” Patel theorized in an op-ed for the Hindu.

He said more research was urgently needed to help decipher the factors, which is key to preventing suicide. Though suicide is the second leading cause of death for young Indians and kills twice as many people in the country as HIV/AIDS, it gets much less attention, Patel said.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

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