10 September 2009
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference on Suicide Prevention Day


Each year, more people killed themselves than died in war, terrorist activities and homicides, correspondents at Headquarters were told on the occasion of World Suicide Prevention Day, with the theme:  “Suicide Prevention in Different Cultures”.

At a press conference today, both Werner Obermeyer, Senior External Relations Officer of the World Health Organization (WHO), and Brian Mishara, President of the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP), stressed that suicide was preventable.

Mr. Obermeyer said that all cultures were affected by suicide.  Every year, around 1 million people committed suicide, which made it the tenth leading cause of death in the world.  In 90 per cent of cases, the cause of suicide was related to mental disorders, such as depression and substance abuse.  In Eastern European countries, alcohol played a big role in suicide, while in Asia the ingestion of pesticides was used in many suicides.  Indigenous people, particularly in developed countries, were heavily affected by suicides, an issue that would be addressed at the next session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.  Suicide prevention required a multisectoral approach involving education, labour and the media, among others.

Mr. Mishara said that, despite the high rate, little attention was paid to the phenomenon.  The suicide rate in European countries and countries in the Asian Pacific region were declining, however, because of national suicide prevention strategies.  The highest risk group for suicide were men over 85 years old.  That group, however, was now being targeted as a risk group.

Noting there were local differences, he said that, in India, for example, the suicide rate was declining, because suicide had been decriminalized and people were, therefore, seeking help.  In other countries, people who attempted suicide were thrown in jail, instead of being helped.  Suicide was most commonly committed by ingesting poison, usually pesticides, particularly in the Latin American, Caribbean and Asian regions.  Alcohol played a big role in suicides, he continued.  In over half of the suicide cases worldwide, people had used alcohol before their death.  When Mr. Gorbachev tried to limit alcohol use in the then Soviet Union, suicide rates there went down.  After measures were relaxed, rates went up again.

He said that suicide was so tragic, because it was preventable.  Although most suicides were caused by mental health problems, mental health-care allocations often comprised less than 2 per cent of national health budgets.  Successful prevention strategies included better mental health care and telephone help lines.  Media reports on certain suicides increased suicides in the following weeks.  Together with the WHO, his organization had put together guidelines for the media on how to better report on suicides.

Asked why men over 85 were more prone to commit suicide, Mr. Mishara said the reason was the lack of protective factors.  Although the elderly had many coping skills, they often lacked strong support.  Suicide was most common among elderly men who had lost their wife and had become socially isolated, especially in Europe, the United States and Canada.  In other cultures, the elderly did not become so isolated.

Studies indicated that, when an elderly man loses his wife, his risk of death doubles, he said.  Some medicines, for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease for instance, increased the risk of depression.  There was also a prejudice among mental health workers that people over 80 did not respond to therapy or that depression among them was normal.  According to research, however, the elderly responded better to treatment than younger people.  Nowadays, men over 50 years of age who had lost their job were also at risk of suicide, particularly in Japan.

Suicides committed during terrorist attacks had nothing to do with “normal” suicides, which were triggered by psychological pain that was felt to be intolerable and interminable, he answered to another question.  Studies had indicated that suicide bombers did not suffer from mental health problems.  On the contrary, candidates for suicide bombing who exhibited mental health problems were weeded out.  To suicide bombers, dying was secondary.

Addressing a question about assisted suicide, he said that practice was legal in Oregon and Washington, United States, and the Netherlands, although the practice was rarely used.  Assisted suicide had never been legalized in Switzerland, but there was no law to prohibit the practice.  Of the few requests for assisted suicide in Oregon, 43 per cent of those who had obtained medicine to end their life did not take it.  Most suicidal people did not die by suicide, he stressed.  Nearly everybody had, at some point in their life, considered suicide.  There were, however, 100 attempts for every successful suicide.  Most people changed their mind after they had started an attempt to end their life.

Lithuania had the highest suicide rate in the world, he answered to another question.  There was no single reason for that, but cultural factors and alcohol abuse played an important role.  Many “suiciders” had been drinking heavily before their deaths, and alcohol compromised the ability to reason.  With the financial crisis taking a heavy toll in that country, an increase in suicides could be expected related to economic factors.  The Government, however, was now developing national suicide prevention programmes.

As for the Caribbean region, the budget allocated to mental health was less than 1 per cent of the total public health budget in most countries, he said.  As suicide was illegal in that region, people were less willing to seek help.  Health ministries around the region needed to take the lead, but funding was an issue.

Asked about the suicide risk for returning veterans of war, he said that that group was at high risk, according to publications in the United States.  The United States Department of Veterans Affairs was addressing the issue, among other things by establishing a dedicated help line.  The United States Air Force had designed a successful programme to change the attitude of veterans regarding mental health services, aiming to convince them that it was not embarrassing to ask for help, but that, on the contrary, it was a “manly and courageous” thing to do.

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For information media • not an official record