Monitor Online Spreading of An Emerging Suicide Method (Charcoal Burning) in Mainland China

In the past 15 years, a new method of suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning resulting from burning barbecue charcoal, also known as the charcoal burning (CB) method, was found to be spreading in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore. Starting from the late 1990s, this method reached epidemic proportions in Hong Kong and Taiwan within 5 years. Meanwhile, we are not clear with the extent to which this method has spread in mainland China because a national suicide surveillance system in China does not exist. Given the rapid spreading of the method in other East Asian area and increasing of Internet penetration in Mainland China, it is reasonable for us to be concerned with the potential increasing of suicide using this method in the most populated country in the world. Our study proposes close monitoring of online information on the CB method as an approach to investigate the trends of suicides using this method and preventing the method from spreading further. We extensively extract and examine news reports of CB suicides, online search activities of keywords relating to CB, and online content relating to CB to monitor the changing trends.

This study will serve as a pilot for our further investigation of charcoal burning suicide, as well as other emerging suicide problems, in various online platforms. We expect the study to not only generate new findings in suicide research but also be able to lead to new online suicide prevention strategies. We hope to engage Internet service providers, such as the Baidu company, to provide preventive information for their users who are asking about suicide and remove information that may increase suicide risk.

This study has demonstrated visible impact on raising the awareness of suicide prevention among Internet service providers since its launch. After we exchanged our knowledge with Baidu, Baidu search engine launched a search box function to display contact information and website of a national suicide prevention helpline when people search “suicide” in the mid of April, 2015. We are working closely with Baidu to extend the function to other suicide-related keywords.

  • Members

    Professor Paul Yip

  • Collaborator

    Dr. Wei Li (Dublin City University)

  • Duration

    April 2014 to May 2015

  • Funding

    HKU Small Project Fund

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