According to official statistics, 280,000 people end their own lives every year in China, but experts believe the situation is far worse.
"The official figure is unrealistically low," said Michael Phillips, an associate professor of social medicine at Harvard Medical School and the head of research at Beijing Hui Long Guan Hospital, which specializes in psychological intervention and suicide prevention.
Phillips attributed the discrepancy to the lack of a death registry system like that in many developed countries.
He added that the suicide figures are extrapolated from limited sample data collected mainly from urban and better-off rural areas and do not adjust for uncounted deaths.
The social stigma surrounding suicide, which extends even to the surviving relatives of the deceased, has also proved a barrier to the collection of reliable statistics, a physiology expert with Peking University surnamed Zhang told China Daily.
"The current system makes it almost impossible to come up with realistic statistics. Studies of suicide have been sporadic. The first one was not undertaken until 1991," Zhang said.
According to Ministry of Health estimates, there are 25 suicides per every 100,000 people in China each year, compared with 15 per 100,000 globally.
A leading cause of death among people aged 15 to 34, suicide costs the country at least $3.5 billion a year, second only to the US, according to the Ministry of Health.
A recent report by the ministry on the nation's biggest killers listed suicide just after road mishaps.
Stories of elite university students committing suicide by throwing themselves off tall buildings are the frequent subject of newspaper reports.
Other tales of suicide are apparently less newsworthy, but perhaps more serious. For example, the suicide rate among rural women is about 30 per every 100,000, which is among the highest in the world.
Left behind by migrant worker husbands, they must contend with labor-intensive farm work, as well as the pressure of raising the young and tending to the old.
Some of these women succumb to the pressure by drinking pesticides, which are found in most rural households and directly contribute to half of the total suicide deaths in China.
These women do not have access to psychological help in the countryside, said Zhang. The situation in cities is much better, though still far from satisfactory.
Calls to a suicide prevention hotline hosted by the Beijing Suicide Research and Prevention Center were met with: "The line is busy now please call later."
(China Daily August 24, 2007)