China quake zone suicides reflect huge emotional toll

BEIJING (Reuters) - A Chinese official at the heart of the Sichuan earthquake zone has committed suicide, state media said on Friday, a setback for reconstruction work and a sign of the ongoing emotional toll from the disaster as winter sets in.

He Zonghua jumped from a 15th-floor hotel room in the center of a city that became a teeming refugee camp after the May 12 disaster which killed more than 80,000 people and left 1.8 million homeless, Xinhua news agency said.

He was the second quake official to kill himself in two months. A third died from a burst artery caused by overwork, the China Daily said, as depression, stress and the challenges of rebuilding create a perfect storm of psychological pressure.

Psychologists have warned that the period three to six months after a major disaster can be particularly difficult and the government has arranged counseling and training for hundreds of local leaders to help them cope.

The latest victim was head of human resources in the general office of the Mianyang government. He had suffered from severe depression and complained of insomnia and bad health before he died. Colleagues also said he appeared anxious, though he did not lose any relatives in the quake.

China won praise for a rapid response from both the government and ordinary citizens, spurred to an unusual outpouring of independent support.

But many in the quake zone are overworked as they grapple with the mundane but painful task of rebuilding in an area hit by regular after-shocks. In October, a county agriculture and disaster relief director, who lost his 12-year-old son and other relatives, hanged himself and left behind a note saying “I feel too much pressure from life and work every day. I cannot hold on any further.”

There is still a staggering amount of work to be done, said Wei Hong, vice governor of Sichuan province.

The region needs 3 trillion yuan ($439 billion) by 2010, far more than the already generous funds which have been promised, he told a news conference about rebuilding efforts.

The most immediate concern is the especially cold winter forecast for the area. Some refugees are still living in tents with little insulation and others struggle to get enough food and warm clothing, said Wei Hong, vice governor of Sichuan province.

“Some senior citizens and children are in need of basic equipment to keep them warm. People in some quake-stricken areas even face the tough problem of provisions for this winter and the coming spring,” he said.

(Reporting by Lucy Hornby and Emma Graham-Harrison; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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