June 4, 2020 / 11:10 PM / a month ago

Calls to suicide helpline show Thais' stress in downturn

BANGKOK (Reuters) - In the weeks before she took her own life, Thai waitress Nitiwadee Sae-Tia felt growing financial pressure after she lost her job, a member of the family said.

Rescue workers carry the body bag of Nitiwadee Sae-Tia, 50, who took her own life after losing her job during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Bangkok, Thailand, May 4, 2020. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

She was one of millions of Thais who lost their jobs after lockdown restrictions to combat the spread of the coronavirus forced malls and other public venues to close in March.

That included the Japanese restaurant where Nitiwadee worked, said the aunt who found her lifeless body when she visited her home in May.

“When I opened the door, I was shocked,” said Praphai Yodpradit. She said Nitiwadee, 50, had grown increasingly stressed and withdrawn after losing her job.

Although Thai figures show the average rate of suicide fell in the first four months of the year, the charity group Samaritans of Thailand said it had received between three and five times the normal volume of daily calls to its suicide helpline since the lockdown in late March.

Most related to concerns about financial problems, said Panomporn Phoomchan, the director.

In a bid to cushion the blow, Thailand announced it would pay 15,000 baht ($460) in three monthly payments to people who had lost their jobs due to the shutdown.

Initially, 24 million people applied, but only 15 million qualified, a finance ministry spokesman said.

The financial struggle of many Thais during the lockdown was also highlighted in widespread media coverage of 59-year-old Unyakarn Booprasert, who tried to take her own life in April outside Thailand’s finance ministry building.

She has since recovered and told Reuters she had tried to kill herself “to speak for other people who suffered like me.”

Authorities have provided Unyakarn with financial support and the public has donated money. She said she is looking for work.

In the first fourth months of this year, Thailand has recorded an average of 350 suicides per month, down on the monthly average of 368 last year.

But Nattakorn Champathong, director of the National Suicide Prevention Center, is concerned that will change later when the immediate crisis of the pandemic has subsided but financial problems persist.

Health experts say it is an internationally recognised phenomenon that suicides often fall during a crisis, only to rise afterwards.

After the Asian financial crisis in Thailand, for example, the number of suicides between 1998 and 2000 increased to more than 8 per 100,000 people from below 7. That compares with 6.64 per 100,000 people last year. Similarly, they rose in Japan in the years following the Asian financial crash.

“Six months after the crisis, the Thai government will face a challenge as the number of suicides will spike,” said Champathong, who wants authorities to prepare now.

Additional reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat:; Wrting by Ed Davies: Editing by Neil Fullick

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