WHO publishes its first global suicide prevention report

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Suicide takes a terrible toll on human life. According to WHO's first global report on suicide prevention 800,000 people die by suicide every year, which is around one person every 40 seconds. WHO published their report on suicide ahead of World Suicide Prevention day on 10th September. Here are some highlights, as well as why the report is so important for the international visibility of helplines.

Suicide occurs all over the world and can take place at almost any age. Globally, suicide rates are highest in people aged 70 years and over. In some countries, however, the highest rates are found among the young. Notably, suicide is the second leading cause of death in 15-29 year-olds globally. Generally, more men die by suicide than women. In richer countries, three times as many men die by suicide than women. Men aged 50 years and over are particularly vulnerable. Women over 70 years old are more than twice as likely to die by suicide than women aged 15-29 years.  Of course, suicide rates across the world vary considerably. Keep in mind that a number of countries do not collect data while in others suicide remains illegal. It is therefore likely that the numbers quoted in the WHO report are an underestimate.

Around 75% of reported suicides occur in low and middle income countries. Some of the worst affected countries have more than 40 times more suicides than the least affected areas. However, the pressures that trigger extreme emotional distress are rather similar everywhere. There are common measures that all governments can take in order to make suicide less likely.  These include reducing people’s access to items that could assist them in a suicide attempt, having a National Suicide Prevention Strategy, and in providing follow-up care by health workers through regular contact, including by phone or home visits for people who have attempted suicide. One hugely important aspect of the report was the critical role that communities play in suicide prevention, providing social support to vulnerable individuals, engaging in follow-up care, fighting stigma, and supporting those bereaved by suicide.

WHO also looked at the role that helplines play in supporting people who are experiencing suicidal feelings and noted the importance of helplines.  They commented that helplines in the USA have been shown to be effective in engaging seriously suicidal individuals and in reducing suicide risk among callers during the call session and subsequent weeks. The study of telephone and chat helpline services in Belgium has suggested that these strategies might also be cost-effective for suicide prevention.

WHO also noted that helplines have proved to be a useful and widely implemented best practice, but concluded that, despite reducing suicide risk, the lack of evaluation means that there is no conclusive association with reducing suicide rates. Although evaluation in a helpline environment is complex, we know that in the UK, as well as elsewhere in the world, helplines play a huge role in delivering this very important work.

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