Some of worst-affected countries have suicide rates 40 times higher than those where fewest people kill themselves
One person in the world dies by suicide every 40 seconds, according to the first ever comprehensive report on the issue from the World Health Organisation, which talks of a massive toll of tragic and preventable deaths.
Suicide rates vary enormously from one country to another around the world – influenced by the cultural, social, religious and economic environments in which people live and sometimes want to stop living. Some of the worst affected countries have more than 40 times more suicides than the least affected areas. But the pressures that cause extreme emotional distress are similar everywhere and there are measures all governments can take to make suicide less likely, says the WHO.
Overall, the Geneva-based UN body estimates that there are at least 800,000 suicides a year. But many countries do not collect good data, there is huge stigma and in a handful of nations suicide is still illegal, so it is highly likely the numbers are an underestimate. Criminalising suicide does not prevent it – India, where it is illegal, has one of the higher suicide rates in the world at almost 21 deaths per 100,000 people against a global average of 11.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people aged 15-29, but otherwise suicide rates increase in people older than 50. It is more common in men than in women, although the disparity is greater in rich countries than in poorer ones. Three-quarters of suicides occur in low- and middle-income countries, with higher numbers in central and eastern Europe and in Asia. North Korea has the very high suicide rate of 39.5 per 100,000 people, but South Korea’s is almost as high, at 36.6. Catholic countries and those with large numbers of Muslims tend to have lower rates because of the opposition to suicide of their religion. People experiencing conflict, abuse and isolation and those suffering discrimination, such as refugees, migrants and those suffering prejudice because of their sexuality are all at increased risk.
For every death, there are many more people who try to kill themselves. Having attempted suicide is the biggest risk factor for dying by suicide at some point in the future. It is a clear cry for help, which governments are urged to pick up on.
Whether it is a mental health crisis, financial desperation, the death of a child or the breakdown of a relationship that triggers the thought of suicide, there is still often an opportunity to stop it, says the WHO.