One person commits suicide every 40 seconds, according to a new report published by the World Health Organization (WHO). The study, which is the first of its kind to chart suicide rates across the globe, found that an estimated 804,000 people killed themselves in 2012, with almost twice as many men doing so as women.
The 92-page document brings to light staggering facts about the statistics surrounding suicide: while it is the 15th-most common cause of death worldwide overall, it is the second-highest for young people aged 15-29. More than 75 percent of these occur in low or middle-income countries, and India had one of the highest rates globally in 2012.
The report seeks not only to investigate the causes and effects of deaths of this nature, but to explore preventative measures that could save a suicidal person’s life. From seemingly simple tasks like installing more barriers in front of bridges to facilitating strong medical and community support networks, it rightly suggests that we can do a lot more to safeguard those who need it.
“Suicides are personal tragedies, each of which severely affect a large number of people and many of which are preventable,” says Professor Keith Hawton, director of the Centre for Suicide Research at the University of Oxford. “The WHO report highlights the extent of suicide globally and the need for concerted and diverse prevention initiatives.”
“This is a landmark report on suicide and its prevention,” adds Professor Rory O’Connor of the University of Glasgow’s Suicidal Behavior Research Laboratory. “Not only does it highlight the scale of the human cost of suicide across the world but it provides an overview of what works to prevent suicide. It is a collective call to action.”
No group escapes lightly from the findings. It is amongst the young and old where suicide rates are the highest—caused by uncertainty navigating burgeoning adulthood, perhaps, or dealing with the crippling effects of a failing body and deceased loved ones. In the most economically developed countries, three times as many males kill themselves as females, and suicide mostly affects middle-aged men. In fragile states, though, it is young adults and elderly women who are most likely to commit suicide, particularly in underdeveloped Southeastern Asian countries where the national average is 16.6 percent. Compared to the global mean, which places suicide as the cause of death for 1.4 percent of the population, that figure is alarmingly high.
The data isn’t as conclusive as the WHO may have liked—many countries had insufficient means of collecting the information—but it raises new questions about the demographics of those afflicted by both suicidal thoughts and the act itself. Culture plays a major part, and countries in which suicide is illegal do not necessarily see it being committed less often. It is also very high amongst indigenous groups, with young men from major tribes such as the Maori in New Zealand being most critically affected.
The results also show a disconnect between the way suicides are reported in certain countries by internal organizations. A paper produced last year by Seoul National University stated that killing oneself in North Korea was incredibly rare: the WHO’s estimate, however, labels it one of the most suicide-riven countries in the world.
It’s easy to view suicide as a drug-addled ending favored solely by celebrities or bullied teens, but these figures tell a very different story. Though they may not make the headlines, people ingesting poisonous pesticides or shooting themselves with firearms are in fact the leading causes of death worldwide, and a stark reminder that no matter where somebody is in the world, if they want a way out, they’ll use whatever they can find to make it happen.
This is one of the key modes of prevention cited in the report: restricted access to whatever it is the person in question may use to harm himself or herself. “Suicidal people are often ambivalent about living or dying. Someone may act impulsively by drinking pesticides, for instance, and die a few days later, even though they would have liked to live on,” it reads. The study aims to confront misconceptions about suicide and suicidal people, offering practical advice so desperately needed by so many countries around the world.
In fact, of the 194 WHO member states, only 28 have a national suicide prevention plan—a number that must surely increase if this issue is to be properly addressed. “There is so much more that can be done at the local, community and national levels to tackle the problem of suicide and minimize the needless loss of life,” Professor O’Connor concludes. “We all have a role to play. Suicide prevention is everyone’s business.”