8 September 2006


8 September 2006
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

PRESS CONFERENCE BY World Health Organization on Suicide Prevention

More people a year die from suicide than from all wars and homicides together, José Manoel Bertolote, Coordinator, Management of Mental and Brain Disorders, World Health Organization, told correspondents today at Headquarters.

Briefing on the “World Suicide Prevention Day” which will take place on 10 September, Mr. Bertolote said that, yearly, more than 1 million people commit suicide, and that between 20 to 50 million attempts were made.  That had a major impact on public health, both in terms of human suffering and in economic terms.  Suicide was being committed more and more by young people.  The WHO was happy to join the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) in having a special day.

He said that, in some Asian countries, more women were committing suicide than men.  In rural China, suicide was the major cause of death of women between the ages of 15 and 35.  Moreover, one third of suicides around the world were committed using pesticides, some of which were forbidden by United Nations conventions.  However, the good news was that a series of actions had been identified that could reduce the impact of suicide and help the people who were suicidal.

Brian L. Mishara, President, International Association of Suicide Prevention (IASP), said not every suicidal person ended up dying by suicide.  For every death, there were some 20 to 50 attempts.  There were relatively so few deaths, not because people were not able to end their life, but because most people who were desperate and suicidal did get help.  The ones that did not were tragic situations where help could have been provided.  Studies around the world had shown that there were effective ways of preventing suicide, ranging from reducing access to lethal means, such as reducing the number of tablets of Tylenol one could buy and gun control, to protecting high-risk areas such as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, where many suicides take place.  Simple things like providing telephone help lines were effective in helping people in desperate situations.

Asked where suicide bombers fit in, Mr. Mishara said suicide bombers were not the same phenomenon as the vast majority of suicides.  Most people who died by suicide had mental health problems.  The main thing about suicide was the intent to end one’s own life.  In the case of suicide bombers, the intent was to achieve political goals by killing others.  The fact that they died in the process was secondary.

He said usually people with serious mental health problems were excluded from suicide bombing, because they tended to be more noticeable.  We know from interviews with unsuccessful suicide bombers that it was not the same phenomenon as suicide.  Most people who died from suicide had a mental health problem; they had social and financial stress, and were seeking a solution to stop their suffering.  Suicide prevention worked because it offered alternative ways of stopping one’s suffering.

Mr. Mishara added that he had heard a presentation by an Israeli psychiatrist who had had the opportunity to interview several “almost suicide bombers” who had been captured right before bombing.  He had stated that he had not been able to make a psychiatric diagnosis for any of them.  He could not find any major psychiatric disorder.

Answering a question about suicide statistics divided by nations and professions, Mr. Bertolote said dentists, doctors and veterinarians were a high-risk group, because they had easy access to lethal methods and knew how to use them.  Research had borne out that doctors, dentists and veterinarians who committed suicide also suffered from mental disorders.

Some nations had high suicide rates, he said.  The best example was Estonia, which had high suicide rates documented since the eighteenth century.  Nobody really had an explanation for that, but there seemed to be something linked to culture, and also to religion that gave some support and protection, or created greater risk.  The rate had also been rising steadily throughout the centuries until it started dropping 15 years ago, when suicide prevention had been introduced.

In Japan, the suicide rate among middle aged men had jumped over the last 10 years, when the economy had gotten worse.  No relationship had been found between suicide rates and macroeconomic indicators such as unemployment, he said, but, when one looked at the relation between suicide rates and the loss of a job, there was indeed a correlation.  An acute loss was a risk for suicide.  Next month, Japan would open its national Suicide Prevention Centre.

Mr. Mishara, asked about the suicides in the countries of the former Soviet Union, said his Association worked with a large number of non-governmental organizations in those countries.  There were help lines available in nearly all countries there and organizations were working at the grass-root level.  A strong association between alcoholism and suicide had been discovered.  Some studies had shown that the availability and cost of vodka had some relationship to suicide rates.  Suicide rates may have appeared artificially higher after the break-up of the former Soviet Union, simply because there was more open admission of the existence of the phenomenon.

He said there were still several countries in the world where suicide was illegal, such as in Singapore and India.  Those types of laws did not appear to have any dissuasive effects, but rather made it more difficult for people to come forth and get help when they were suicidal.

Asked about suicide as an end-of-life choice and if the United Nations had a position on whether it was a human right to end one’s life, Mr. Bertolote said those suicides had been included in the statistics, because the figures were based on death certificates, which only offered the choices of natural diseases, accident or self-inflicted injuries.  The United Nations had issued a National Policy for Suicide Prevention in the 1990s.  Some countries had based their policies on that document.  It tackled the question of assisted suicide, which should be clearly regulated by national law.  It happened in highly developed countries such as Australia, Switzerland and the Netherlands.  The number of such cases was so small that it was more a matter of human rights than of public health.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.