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Global suicide toll exceeds war and murder
13:37 08 September 04
NewScientist.com news service
Suicide kills more people each year than road traffic accidents in most European countries, the World Health Organization is warning. And globally, suicide takes more lives than murder and war put together, says the agency in a call for action.
The death toll from suicide – at almost one million people per year – accounts for half of all violent deaths worldwide, says the WHO. “Estimates suggest fatalities could rise to 1.5 million by 2020,” the agency warned on Wednesday.
"Suicide is a tragic global public health problem,” says Catherine Le Galès-Camus, WHO’s assistant director general for non-communicable diseases and mental health. “There is an urgent need for coordinated and intensified global action to prevent this needless toll."
The WHO is holding a meeting of experts in Geneva, Switzerland, to address suicide prevention ahead of its “World Suicide Prevention Day” on Friday.
"It's important to realise that suicide is preventable," points out Lars Mehlum, president of the International Association for Suicide Prevention. "And that having access to the means of suicide is both an important risk factor and determinant of suicide."
The number of suicides in most European countries exceeds the number of annual traffic fatalities, says the WHO. In 2001, the global toll from suicide was greater than the 500,000 deaths from homicide and the 230,000 deaths from war combined.
And an estimated 10 to 20 million people survive failed suicide attempts each year, resulting in injury, hospitalisation and trauma, says the agency. However, the ultimate extent of the problem is unknown as full reliable data is unavailable.
The highest suicide rates are found in Eastern Europe, says WHO, whereas people in Latin America, Muslim countries and a few Asian nations are least likely to die by their own hand.
Suicide rates tend to increase with age but “there has recently been an alarming worldwide increase in suicidal behaviours amongst young people aged 15 to 25”, warns WHO. Men also successfully commit suicide more than women – with the exception of rural China and parts of India.
The most common methods for committing suicide include swallowing pesticides, using firearms and overdosing on painkillers. Curbing access to these methods is a crucial factor in preventing suicide.
“One recent breakthrough was the move by many pharmaceutical companies to market painkillers in blister packs rather than more easily accessible bottles, which had a significant impact on their use as a suicide method,” says WHO.
High self-esteem and social “connectedness” can protect against suicide. Psychosocial interventions based on these and appropriate treatment of mental disorders has cut suicides among people at risk in countries such as the UK and Finland, says WHO.