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Prevalence and influence factors of suicidal ideation among females and males in Northwestern urban China: a population-based epidemiological study
- Huiwen Xu†1, 2,
- Weijun Zhang†1,
- Xiaohua Wang1,
- Jiaqi Yuan1,
- Xinfeng Tang1,
- Yi Yin1,
- Shengfa Zhang1,
- Huixuan Zhou1,
- Zhiyong Qu1Email author and
- Donghua Tian1Email author
© Xu et al. 2015
Received: 15 November 2014
Accepted: 11 September 2015
Published: 25 September 2015
Suicide is an urgent public health challenge for China. This study aims to examine the prevalence, influence factors, and gender differences of suicidal ideation among general population in Northwestern Urban China.
Data used in this study were derived from the third wave of a cohort study of a randomized community sample with 4291 participants (≥20 years) in 2008 in Lanzhou City and Baiyin City, Gansu Province. Data were collected via face-to-face interview by the trained interviewers. Descriptive analyses, chi-square tests and multivariate logistic regressions were performed by using Stata 12.0, as needed.
The prevalence of 12-month suicidal ideation was 4.29 %, there was no significant difference between males and females [5.04 % vs 3.62 %, Adjusted Odds Ratio (AOR) = 0.83, p = 0.351]. Several risk factors for suicidal ideation were confirmed, including being unmarried (AOR = 1.55, p = 0.030), having depression symptoms (AOR = 2.33, p < 0.001), having other insurance (AOR = 1.83, p = 0.01) or no insurance (AOR = 1.73, p = 0.024). In addition, several influence factors were significantly different in males and females, such as being currently married (unmarried vs married, AOR = 1.84, p = 0.027, for females; no difference for males), feeling hopeless (hopless vs hopeful, AOR = 1.92, p = 0.06, for females; no difference for males), having other insurances (having other insurances vs having basic employee medical insurance, AOR = 1.92, p = 0.044, for males; no difference for females), having debts (having debts vs no debts, AOR = 2.69, p = 0.001, for males; no difference for females), currently smoking (smoking vs nonsmoking, AOR = 3.01, p = 0.019 for females, no difference for males), and currently drinking (drinking vs nondrinking, AOR = 2.01, p = 0.022, for males; no difference for females).
Discussion and conclusion
These findings suggested that comprehensive suicide prevention strategies should be developed or strengthened in order to prevent suicide ideation in China, and the gender-specific differences need to be explored through further researches.
Suicide is an urgent public health challenge which has received the increasing attention in China and worldwide [1, 2]. World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that there were about 1 million people died by suicide, which accounted for 1.3 % of the total global burden of disease in 2004 . In China, suicide was the fifth leading cause of death in China and contributed to 42 % of all suicide worldwide and 56 % of the world’s female suicide . It is worth noting that there are several specific characteristics of suicide in China, including high suicide rate among females [4, 5], high rural suicide rate [5, 6], pesticides poisoning being regarded as a major suicide method [2, 7], and low-planned suicides .
In China, higher employment rates and better educational opportunities from recent economic developments may have contributed to the decrease of overall suicide rate . Previous studies showed that the suicide rate had dropped from 22.9 to 15.4 per 100,000 during the period of 1991–2000  and further decreased to 5.28 per 100,000 (5.78 and 4.77 for urban males and urban females respectively; 9.95 and 8.58 for rural males and rural females respectively) in 2011 [11, 12]. However, suicide rates among young males and rural older adults increased recently [12–14]. Taking the 1.4 billion population of China into consideration, the burden of suicide is extremely high . Therefore, suicide is still a major public health challenge in China , and more attention should be paid to suicide prevention in the future.
To prevent suicide in advance, suicidal ideation, defined as the wishes to be dead or thoughts of killing oneself, has been introduced by some researchers [16, 17]. Suicidal ideation, which involves a hierarchy of feelings from the thought of “Life is not worth living” to more serious articulation of a thought-out plan, is important because most suicides and parasuicides have engaged in suicidal thoughts prior to their acts [18, 19]. Meanwhile, suicidal ideation is clinically important because it enables the measurement of intent . A previous study had confirmed the importance of suicidal ideation and further suggested that continued efforts should be outreached to the untreated individuals with suicidal ideation before the occurrence of attempts . Hence, a deeper understanding of suicidal ideation will be beneficial in the suicide intervention and prevention.
Previous studies have investigated the prevalence of lifetime, 24-month, and 12-month suicidal ideation in China. The lifetime prevalence was 28.1 % among adults aged 20–59 years in Hong Kong (east coast) , 18.5 % in the rural areas of Yuncheng City, Shanxi Province (north China) , and 18.8 % in the rural areas of Mianyang City, Sichuan Province (southwest China) . The prevalence of 24-month suicidal ideation was 2.12 % among the rural residents in Zhejiang Province (east China) . It was also found that prevalence of suicidal ideation in a 12-month period was 6.7 % in Hong Kong , 5.2 % among rural residents aged 16–34 years  and 8.8 % in rural older adults  in Mianyang City, and 17.25 % among adolescents in Guangzhou (south China) .
In addition, a few of influencing factors have been found to be independently associated with suicidal ideation, including depressive symptoms [28, 29], the severity of depressed mood , decrease in income , unemployment [31, 32], traumatic life events , age, marriage and concern by others , the balance between life events and social support , and a history of adverse childhood experiences . Among the general population of China, the following risk factors for suicide ideation have also been screened out: being female [23, 25, 34], being elderly , being unmarried [23, 25], mood disorders [21, 36], being physically unhealthy , having debts , feeling helplessness [21, 25], drinking [27, 34], and smoking . Apart from above, some studies found a positive association between Body Mass Index (BMI) and suicidal ideation , however the results were not consistent [40–43]. Therefore, the potential mechanism of the obesity-suicidal ideation association remains unclear.
In China, existing studies outlined above were mainly conducted in four developed urban areas (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong), and three rural districts (Yuncheng, Mianyang and Zhejiang). However there is no study on the prevalence or influence factors of suicidal ideation conducted in undeveloped urban areas, especially in western China. Furthermore, although gender differences in the suicide [44, 45] and suicide attempts [46–48] have been confirmed, the gender-specific influence factors for suicidal ideation have not been examined in general population, with the exception of a study on adolescents in Guangzhou . To fill these gaps in the current research, a population-based study in western urban China was conducted to investigate the prevalence and influence factors of suicidal ideation, and to examine the gender-specific influence factors of suicidal ideation.
The data used in this study were derived from the third wave of the Chinese Urban Social Protection Survey [49–51], a cohort study of a randomized community sample in Lanzhou City and Baiying City of Gansu Province (northwestern China), with the cooperation of the Civil Affairs Department of Gansu Province (northwestern China). The baseline survey was completed in 2005, and subsequently two follow-up rounds of data collection were conducted in April 2006 and January 2008, respectively. This study was approved by the Committee of Ethics of School of Social Development and Public Policy (SSDPP) at Beijing Normal University. Gansu Province is a typical low-income region in western China. In 2012, the per capita disposable income of urban and rural residents was 17,237 RMB and 4,495 RMB respectively, both of which ranked in the bottom of the 31 provinces . Lanzhou City, the capital of Gansu Province, is home to a population of 2,063,800, with a per capita disposable income of 18,442 RMB in 2012 . Baiying City, which is 60 km away from Lanzhou, has a population of 714,200, with a per capita disposable income of 18,532 RMB in 2012 .
Interviewer training, quality control and interview setting
The survey was completed via face-to-face interviews by the trained interviewers. 50 graduate students, with a major in psychology, sociology or social policy, were selected as the interviewers from Northwest Normal University (NNU), Lanzhou City. All the interviewers participated in a 7-day systematic training at NNU, which was taught by experienced researchers from the School of Social Development and Public Policy (SSDPP) of Beijing Normal University (BNU). After finishing the training, interviewers were supposed to acquire following knowledge: (1) the purpose of the survey, (2) the standard interviewing protocol and techniques, and (3) the explanations of the items in the questionnaire. Finally, 40 qualified interviewers were recruited after a face-to-face assessment.
To ensure the quality of survey, a guideline for investigation, which covered detailed information about the research objective, question definitions, and a step-by-step interviewing protocol, was sent to each interviewer. Furthermore, prior to the interview, a letter was delivered to each selected family to inform them of the purpose of the survey and their right to refuse it. Prior to the start of interview, an inform consent document was signed once the respondent agreed to join the survey. The whole interview took about 30 to 60 minutes, which depended on the family size and the understanding capacity of the respondents. The entire survey took 12 days in January 2008. In addition, a quality control group that included five experienced researchers from SSDPP were responsible for monitoring the process of interview, and checking the questionnaires at the end of each working-day. The repeated interview was conducted through the telephone when over 30 % of data were missed in a questionnaire. Eventually, 120 questionnaires were completed by the supplementing interviews.
Wording of questions comprising variables included in the analyses
During the past 12 months, did you ever consider suicide?
What is your current marital status?
Body mass index
What is your height in centimeter? & what is your weight in kilogram?
How would you rate your health when compared with same-aged peers?
Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale
Do you feel hopeful about the future?
What is your health insurance?
Household annual expenditure (RMB/year)
What is the annual household expenditure for the following items: food, smoke& alcohol, clothes, daily necessities, durable goods, labor services, children education, adult education and training, alimony payment, gifts, transportation, water/electricity, communication, medical service, house renting, others.
During the past year, did your family have any debts?
What is your current employment status?
During the past month, whether do you smoke or not?
During the past month, whether do you drink or not?
Data entry and statistics analysis
Statistical analysis in this study involved in four steps. First, cross-tabulations were computed to estimate the prevalence of suicidal ideation in all of the respondents and among different groups. P values were obtained to test the difference between independent variables and suicidal ideation. As suicidal ideation is a dichotomized variable, logistic regression model was used in this study. Univariate logistic regressions were then performed separately for all independent variables. Next, all the procedures above were conducted in the female and male subgroups. Then all variables used in the univariate analysis entered into a multivariate logistic regression simultaneously. The adjusted odd ratios (AORs), 95 % confidence intervals (95 % CI) and P values of influence factors were obtained. Finally, two separate logistic regressions were performed to determine associations between influence factors and suicidal ideation among males and females, respectively. In addition, the listwise deletion was employed to address the missing data in all statistical analyses. The level of significance was set as 5 % throughout the study. Data analyses were performed using Stata12.0 (StataCorp LP, College Station, Texas, USA).
Prevalence and univariate analysis of influence factors of suicidal ideation
Non-suicidal ideation, n (%)
Suicidal ideation, n (%)
OR (95 % CI)
Junior high school or less
College or above
≥19 & <25
>1000& ≤ 20000
Prevalence and OR (95 % CI) of suicidal ideation among females and males
Ideation, n (%)
OR (95 % CI)
Ideation, n (%)
OR (95 % CI)
Junior high school
College or above
≥19 & <25
>1000& ≤ 20000
Multivariate logistic regressions of suicide ideation among females and malesa
AOR (95 % CI)
AOR (95 % CI)
AOR (95 % CI)
Junior high school or less
College or above
≥19 & <25
>10,000& ≤ 20000c
Comparison of prevalence with other studies
The self-reported 12-month prevalence of suicidal ideation was 4.29 % (3.62 % for male, and 5.04 % for female) among urban adults (≥20 years) in northwestern China. The 12-month prevalence in this study was lower than that in rural Chinese aged 16–34 years (5.2 %)  and that in older adults aged 50 years or older in rural China (8.8 %) ; however, it was higher than that in rural residents from developed Zhejiang province . Theoretically, the lifetime prevalence of suicide ideation was higher than the 12-month prevalence . Therefore, we can conclude that the 12-month prevalence of suicidal ideation in undeveloped urban districts may be higher than that in developed metropolises, and lower than that in undeveloped rural areas. In other words, this study confirmed the protective effects of economic development and urbanization against suicide and suicidal ideation in China [23, 61, 62].
Influence factors of suicidal ideation
In this study, all influence factors examined in univariate analysis were found to be significantly different in subjects with and without suicide ideation, except for age, education, drinking and smoking (Table 2). Subsequently, multivariate logistic regressions further confirmed several risk factors for suicidal ideation including being unmarried [23, 25], depression [21, 36, 37], feeling hopeless [21, 25], having debts [38, 63] and currently drinking [27, 34]. It is important to point out that there were disparities between results of univariate regression analysis and multivariate regression analysis. These disparities may be led by the difference of the statistical methods, the univariate regression analysis help us investigate whether a relationship exists between two paired variables, however, multivariate regression analysis aims to determine which variables influence the outcome among a set of variables.
It was intriguing to find that BEMI served as a protective factor against suicidal ideation when compared with subjects who were uninsured and those with other insurances. A recent study, conducted by our research team, has also found a protective function of basic health insurance against depression , and this study further confirmed the protective impact of basic health insurance on suicidal ideation in the general population. However, the protective role of insurance, after achievement of universal coverage, should be further examined by longitudinal study in the future.
Age was not significantly associated with suicidal ideation, even those aged 65 or older did not show higher prevalence of 12-month suicidal ideation in this study. It was analogous to the situation of finding a similar prevalence among working-age adults and older adults in Hong Kong [21, 37], but was inconsistent to the results of rural residents in Sichuan Province [23, 26]. Even though, we would like to point out that there has been no large-scale study on this topic by using standardized assessment tools among both rural and urban areas in mainland China. Therefore, the epidemiology of suicidal ideation in China needs to be explored through further researches.
Furthermore, education, employment status, and BMI were not significantly associated with suicidal ideation in multivariate regression model. Previous studies, conducted in China [23, 64] and France , showed that lower education levels and being unemployed were significantly associated with increased odds of reporting suicidal ideation. However, another study, conducted by Bromet, E. J. et al. , showed that low education were not significant risk factors for the lifetime ideation. These discrepancies may be due to the characteristics of sample, and need to be further studied. It is important to point out that the association between BMI and suicidal ideation still remains unclear. Carpenter et al. concluded that increased BMI was associated with higher suicide ideation for women, however, lower BMI was associated with suicide ideation for men . The overall significant positive associations between BMI and suicidal ideation were also found by Mather et al. , Wagner et al. , and Dutton, G. R. et al. . Among U.S. youth, perceived overweight was a statistically significant risk factor for suicide attempts . However, Goldney, R. D. et al.  revealed that the assumption “increased BMI is necessarily associated with suicidal ideation” was not tenable.
Gender difference of prevalence and risk factors
The higher prevalence of suicidal ideation among females (female vsmale: 5.04 % vs 3.62 %) was consistent with previous findings in Chinese population [4, 23]. However, being female was not a significant variable in the regression model after controlling other variables (AOR = 0.83, p = 0.351). The disappearance of gender-difference in suicidal ideation is contrary to previous studies, in which females experienced a significantly greater risk of reporting suicidal ideation than males [23, 26]. A recent meta-analysis also estimated that AOR of the pooled suicidal ideation for females was 1.43 (95 % CI = 1.25-1.64) in a Chinese population . The disappearance of gender-differences in this study may be partly explained by the characteristics of this sample. For example, females in our sample came from urban community, and their social-economic statuses, compared with males, were relatively better than those from rural areas. Actually, it was found that the female–male suicide ratio has decreased sharply , because of the improvement in females’ social-economic status in recent years . However, this interpretation need to be further examined in the future.
This study revealed the different influence factors of suicidal ideation between females and males, which were less emphasized by previous studies. The only shared risk factor of suicidal ideation was depression, a well-known risk factor for suicide and suicidal ideation , suggests that mental illness is still a major challenge for preventing suicide in China. In this sample, debt was only associated with suicidal ideation in females but not in males. In addition, household annual expenditure of >10,000& ≤ 20,000 RMB was a protective factor against suicidal ideation in males (marginal difference, p = 0.05), but not in females. These results indicated that males benefit more from better economic status than females, while females were easier influenced by negative economic situation (i.e., having debts). Females may be more vulnerable when they experienced the life-events including being unmarried, depression, uninsured, and having debts, compared with males. This finding is inconsistent with the results of studies from western countries, which found debts were significantly correlated with higher suicidal ideation among general population. A study  in European and American countries found that the 2008 global economic crisis mainly influenced the suicide rate in men. Another study, conducted by Turvey C et al., revealed that financial loss rather than low income remained a significant correlate of suicidal ideation after controlling for depression . Similarly, Hintikka et al. concluded that difficulty in repaying debts is an independent factor that is associated with suicidal ideation . A more recent study also indicated that the population in debt were twice as likely to have suicidal ideation after controlling for the socio-demographic, economic, social and lifestyle factors . Another more recent study also indicated that poorer financial perception was associated with more prevalent suicidal ideation . One possible explanation for the difference may be that the traditional cultural values in China were different from western countries. Of course, this hypothesis should be further explored.
Finally, smoking and drinking status were not significant influence factors of suicidal ideation in the full model; however, smoking was a significant risk factor in females, and drinking was a significant factor in males. This difference may be explained by the much higher smoking rate in males than females in China (52.9 % vs. 2.4 %) . Two studies showed that current smoking were associated with suicidal ideation [25, 27], another two studies further indicated that daily smoking was associated with suicidal ideation in women but not in men [65, 72]. However, there were no significant differences between suicidal ideation and smoking status in other studies [66, 73]. Now, China is the largest consumer of tobacco in the world, with an estimated 301 million current smokers. Therefore, the inter-relationships of smoking and suicide ideation need to be considered in the future. On the other hand, drinking was a risk factor for males in this study, which was similar with previous studies which confirmed alcohol abuse disorders are more common in males suicides [46, 74].
Limitations and Strengths of this study
Several limitations of this study should be acknowledged. First, as a cross-sectional study, this study was unable to prove a causal-effect relationship between risk factors and suicidal ideation. Second, as the sample was selected from two cities of Gansu Province, a conservative generalization of the findings of this study should be applied when considering the diversity of social-economic status on other populations. Third, suicidal ideation was assessed by using a single question, which could not distinguish the severity of the suicide risk. The independent measuring tools should be utilized in epidemiological or clinical study in the future. Fourth, more valid measures, such as Beek Depression Invertory Beck (BDI-21) and Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9), should be used in the future study, although the CES-D scale has been used extensively in previous studies. Fifth, social support and personality were not measured in this study. Sixth, although gender differences were observed in this study, the underlying mechanisms for those influence factors remain unclear.
Regardless of those limitations, this study with a large sample size provided several contributions to current knowledge about suicidal ideation. 1) This study may be the first study conducted within a general population in an undeveloped urban area of China. 2) Detailed risk factors of suicidal ideation were investigated among a large number of populations. 3) The gender-specific differences were justified by using statistics analyses, which will be beneficial for the design and implementation of suicidal prevention strategies.
In conclusion, suicide is an urgent public health issue in China, comprehensive suicide prevention strategies should be developed or strengthened in order to prevent suicide ideation in China. In the future, a longitudinal study is needed to confirm the casual relation between gender-specific influence factors and suicidal ideation, and more attention should be paid to gender difference in the prevention strategy for suicide.
We give many thanks to the employees of the Civil Affairs Department of Gansu Province, bureau of civil affairs of Lanzhou City, and bureau of civil affairs of Baiyin City for their meaningful work during the project implementation. Thanks also to all the project participants and all the respondents.
This study was supported by the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities (No:SKZZX2013053 in Beijing Normal University), the Study on the Key Technologies of Rural PrimaryHealthcare funded by the Ministry of Science and Technology of China (Number: 2012BAJ18B00), and theSpecialized Project on Scientific Research within Healthcare Circle by National Health and Family PlanningCommission of China (Number: 201002011).
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