For the first time the World Health Organization has released a global report on suicide prevention and it shows that each year more than 800,000 people take their own lives — about one person every 40 seconds.
“This report is a call for action to address a large public health problem which has been shrouded in taboo for far too long,” said WHO Director General Dr. Margaret Chan in a statement on Sept 4.
The WHO looked at data from 2000 to 2012. In 2012, an estimated 75 per cent of the world’s suicides occurred in low and middle-income countries, where young adults and elderly women have higher suicide rates than their counterparts in richer countries. Meanwhile, in high-income countries, three times as many men died of suicide as women, with males over the age of 50 particularly vulnerable.
Although there’s a link between suicide and mental health disorders, the report notes that many people decide to end their life impulsively during moments of crisis brought on, for instance, by financial woes, relationship problems and illness. Those experiencing conflict, disaster, violence or abuse are also at risk, so too are those from vulnerable populations, including refugees, indigenous peoples and LGBTI persons.
In almost all regions of the world, suicide rates are highest in people over 70, but in some countries, the prevalence rate is higher in young people. Globally, suicide is the second leading cause of death among those aged 15 to 29.
In Canada, there were 3,983 suicides in 2012 – 3,026 of them were males. Rates were highest among men between the ages of 50 and 69.
In Canada, the suicide rate was 9.8 per 100,000 people. By comparison, the rate in the United Kingdom was 6.2 and in the United States was 12.1. Globally, Guyana had the highest suicide rate, with 44.2 per 100,000. North Korea had the second highest with 38.5 per 100,000.
The sweeping report, Preventing suicide: A global imperative, addresses suicide rates, suicide methods and effective suicide prevention efforts, and is aimed at helping countries develop or improve suicide prevention strategies. The publication is part of the WHO’s efforts to reduce suicide rates by 10 per cent by 2020.
“No matter where a country currently stands in suicide prevention, effective measures can be taken, even just starting at local levels and on a small-scale,” said Dr. Alexandra Fleischmann, scientist in the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse at WHO.
The most common suicide methods are ingestion of pesticide poisoning, hanging and firearms use. Evidence from countries such as Australia, the United States and Canada shows that restricting access to these methods can lower the number of suicides. For instance, Canadian laws restricting firearm ownership are linked to a reduction in firearm suicide rates. Suicide by jumping — from bridges, buildings or in front of trains — is also common, but structural interventions, such as barriers, have proven effective.
Other ways to decrease suicide rates include early treatment for those with mental and substance use disorders, and follow-up care for those who have already attempted suicide. The WHO notes it’s also important for governments to make suicide prevention a health priority — currently 28 countries have national suicide prevention strategies.
Canada doesn’t yet have a strategy, but the government is completing work on a federal framework for suicide prevention. The Mental Health Commission of Canada has a mental health strategy for Canada, which includes suicide prevention.
Mark Ferdinand, national director of public policy at Canadian Mental Health Association, says that while he’s pleased the report provides a global perspective, it “doesn’t really identify things that we don’t already know within Canada.”
“With regards to suicide being a very serious public health problem, we’ve known that for decades in Canada,” he told the Star. “And, thankfully we have a number of organizations in Canada that have been working very well together over the last several years to reduce the rate of suicide in this country.”