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WHO Says Global Suicide Rate Huge But Largely Preventable - 2004-09-08

The World Health Organization says suicide is a huge but largely preventable public health problem. To mark World Suicide Day, which falls on Friday, WHO is calling for global action to prevent these needless and tragic deaths.

The World Health Organization reports suicide causes almost half of all violent deaths worldwide. Every year, it says nearly one million people die by their own hands. It estimates this number could rise to 1.5 million by 2020 if urgent action to curb suicide is not taken.

Jose Bertolote coordinates WHO's Mental Health and Brain Disorder Division. He acknowledges the pain of those who kill themselves. But, says their suffering extends to their families and friends whose lives are devastated emotionally, socially and economically.

"Something like five to 10 people will be affected," Dr. Bertolote says. "That is what we call survival suicide and some of those people will be survivors for the rest of their lives meaning they will bereave , they will suffer, they will have a kind of suffering for the rest of their lives. So, if you multiply five or 10 per almost one million, you have every year a bunch of five to 10 million people being added to this group of people suffering because one committed suicide.

Among countries reporting suicide, WHO says the highest rates are found in Eastern Europe and the lowest in Latin America, in Muslim countries and in a few of the Asian countries. Little information on suicide from African countries is available.

It says suicide rates increase with age, although, recently, there has been an alarming increase in suicidal behavior among young people. With the exception of rural China, WHO reports more men than women commit suicide. But, it says in most places more women than men attempt suicide. Common risk factors include poverty, unemployment, loss of loved ones, alcohol and drug abuse and mental disorders.

Dr. Bertolote says the most common methods are pesticides, firearms and medication. In Asia, for example, he says women, in particular, commonly use pesticides to commit suicide.

"If you go to the house of farmers, there are pesticides-highly lethal-which are forbidden in developed countries and are easily available," Dr. Bertolote says. "This creates a huge potential for suicide and is a major risk factor. Another risk factor is guns. Having a number of guns at home is clearly associated with the risk of suicide. So, the legislation allowing or controlling the availability of hand guns can be very effective in preventing or promoting suicide."

The World Health Organization says suicide is preventable. It says early identification of people at risk and appropriate treatment of mental disorders can help prevent suicides.

Health experts say the vast majority of suicidal people do not want to die. They say strategies, such as psychosocial interventions and suicide prevention centers can help people at risk.