More than 800,000 people commit suicide each year. Compare that to the Syrian Civil War, which has killed almost 200,000 people in the past three years. Which topic has gotten more coverage in the media? Suicide rarely receives the attention that it deserves, and as a result, many suffer in silence, too afraid to reach out for help.

The topic may get more of the exposure that it needs due to the WHO’s new report, its first-ever global survey on suicide. The report includes some startling statistics. Globally, suicides account for 50% of all violent deaths in men and 71% in women. Among young people aged 15-29, suicide is the second leading cause of death globally, after traffic accidents. A person dies by suicide somewhere in the world every 40 seconds.

The WHO admits that its data isn’t perfect, but it does gives a general sense of the prevalence of suicide around the world. In terms of absolute numbers, India is the unfortunate leader. A quarter million Indians committed suicide in 2012. North Korea has the highest rates, experiencing approximately 39.5 suicides per 100,000 people in 2012, compared to a global average of 11.4. South Korea is not far behind, with 36.6 per 100,000. The former Soviet Union and East Africa are also particularly affected.

suicide map, WHO

Source: WHO

In high-income countries, men are 3.5 times more likely to commit suicide than women, while in lower-middle-income and low-income countries, they are only 1.7 times more likely.

Last year, the WHO launched a Mental Action Plan 2013-2020. As part of the plan, member states pledged to work toward a 10% reduction in suicides by the end of the decade. This goal actually might be achievable. The global number of suicides fell from 883,000 in 2000 to 804,000 in 2012, a 9% reduction, despite a large increase in world population. But this hides regional variation. China, for example, has reduced suicide rates by 60% in the past 12 years, but the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central Africa Republic both saw their suicide rates increase by more than 20%.

Much more can be done to actively decrease suicide rates. Only 28 countries have national suicide prevention strategies, and 25 countries still have laws on the books that punish individuals who attempt suicide. Although those laws are usually not carried out, they indicate a failure to classify suicide as a public health problem. A taboo and stigma still surrounds suicide in many places.

Ultimately, suicide is preventable. Individuals at risk can be targeted for help. Risk factors such as previous suicide attempts, mental disorders, harmful use of alcohol, chronic pain, and a family history of suicide can be monitored. Health systems can be changed to allow easier access to care. Media reports can avoid sensationalizing suicide and inspiring “copycat” attempts.

One of the most effective ways to prevent suicide is to simply restrict availability of the means of suicide. Suicides are not always planned out days ahead of time. According to the WHO, “many suicides occur impulsively in moments of crisis and, in these circumstances, ready access to the means of suicide – such as pesticides or firearms – can determine whether a person lives or dies.”

September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day, organized by the International Association for Suicide Prevention. The findings in this report make its goal particularly urgent.

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