Study: As Global Suicide Rates Rise, Innovative Prevention Efforts are Needed

A decades-long study released this week offers clear view of a complex issue.

The number of deaths from suicide increased by 6.7 percent globally between 1990 and 2016, a study published Thursday in The BMJ shows, making an ambitious goal to reduce suicides worldwide only seem achievable if global efforts are made now, urge the study’s researchers.

The World Health Organization’s goal to decrease global suicide mortality by one-third by 2030 is well-documented, but the latest statistics shows that suicide prevention frameworks and study are needed on a global scale.

Suicide, as a global public health concern, is more complicated than a single statistic, and trends vary substantially across countries and between groups. The complex web of factors that underlie suicide mortality can be drastically different per region.

While this study, which was produced by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, determined an overall uptick in suicides, the years of life lost globally have actually decreased when everything is averaged out.

Also, when the researchers adjusted for the age of the individuals when they died from suicide, they realized that the years of life lost rate from suicide has decreased by a third between 1990 and 2016.

These conclusions all came from analysis of data collected from the 2016 Global Burden of Disease Study, which reflects patterns of suicide mortality by age, sex, and sociodemographics across 195 countries. Overall, rates of suicides committed by men were higher than that of women across the world, save for when it came to the 15 to 19-year old age group. Suicide deaths are higher among men than women, but the ratio is much lower in the countries that stretch from southern India to China.

This map shows the suicide rate per 100,000 people.
This map shows the suicide rate per 100,000 people.

Ellicott Matthay, a University of California San Francisco postdoctoral scholar, writes that global improvements in suicide prevention are needed.

“This study … lays the groundwork for future suicide studies to incorporate such factors and inform prevention efforts,” Matthay writes. “For example, determining the means of suicide is crucial to evaluate and inform means related interventions, historically one of the most successful avenues for suicide prevention.”

Other varying trends also emerged from the data:

  • In Western countries, there is a strong relationship between mental illness and suicide, but that link is less pronounced in Asia.
  • Some countries have exceptionally high rates — like Lesotho and Lithuania — and other countries have especially low, like Lebanon and Syria.
  • Suicide is the leading cause of years of life lost in the area known as “high income Asia Pacific” and is among the top 10 leading causes of death in eastern Europe, central Europe, western Europe, central Asia, Australia, southern Latin America, and high income North America.

Importantly, this analysis, like many suicide studies, lacks information about the drivers behind these suicides.

Because of the “sensitive and illegal nature of suicide” in many countries, the results could reflect issues like under-reporting and while uniform metrics are helpful in generating comparable estimates of death, it doesn’t reveal crucial insights that could perhaps prevent those deaths.

In the United States, researchers from the University of Michigan have determined that, when it came to American teenagers, one of the best ways of reducing the likelihood of teen suicide was building a circle of trusted adults around a young person at risk. On Wednesday, they published a paper in JAMA Psychiatry showing that young people — previously hospitalized for suicidal thoughts — randomly assigned to receive extra support from trained adults were more likely to survive in the future.

Whether similar approaches would work across populations and regions, remains to be seen. Suicides are preventable and public health advocates and scientists are working together to develop the strategies that can be deployed.

Partial Abstract:

Objectives — To use the estimates from the Global Burden of Disease Study 2016 to describe patterns of suicide mortality globally, regionally, and for 195 countries and territories by age, sex, and Socio-demographic index, and to describe temporal trends between 1990 and 2016.

Design — Systematic analysis. Main outcome measures — Crude and age-standardized rates from suicide mortality and years of life lost were compared across regions and countries, and by age, sex, and Socio-demographic index (a composite measure of fertility, income, and education).

See abstract in full here.