Every 40 seconds, someone in the world commits suicide and in light of this fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) has established a simple goal: reducing the rate of suicide in each country by a full 10 percent by 2020. To help make this ambitious achievement possible, WHO and the International Association for Suicide Prevention once again will observe Sept. 10 as World Suicide Prevention Day, and to provide an overview of successful suicide deterrence, WHO has issued a first-ever report, Preventing Suicide: a Global Imperative. “No matter where a country currently stands in suicide prevention,” said Dr. Alexandra Fleischmann, a scientist in the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse at WHO, “effective measures can be taken, even just starting at local level and on a small-scale.”

The Facts of Suicide: Age, Sex, and Means

Each year, more than 800,000 people commit suicide globally, though a full three quarters of these deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries. While a person of any age may attempt or complete suicide, rates are highest in people over the age of 70 worldwide, though in some countries the highest rates are found among the young. In fact, globally, suicide is the second leading cause of death (after car accidents) among people between the ages of 15 and 29.

How do people commit suicide? Globally, the most common ways people self-destruct are by drinking pesticides, hanging, and guns. In richer countries, three times as many men than women die of suicide, but in low- and middle-income countries, the male-to-female ratio is less dramatic with about 1.5 men for each woman. Suicide accounts for half of all violent deaths among men and nearly three-quarters among women.

The global suicide rate, regardless of age, is 11.4 per every 100,000 people. WHO believes since suicide is illegal in some countries and a sensitive issue overall, it is under-reported; even in countries where data appears to be solid, suicide may often be misclassified as an accident or another cause of death. In fact, for each adult who died of suicide there may have been more than 20 others attempting suicide, according to the WHO report.

Preventing Deaths

Perhaps the greatest and most pernicious myth surrounding suicide is that only people with some kind of mental disorder will try to kill themselves. The truth is suicidal thinking simply represents deep happiness in many cases. In fact, a person’s desire to commit suicide is often short-term and situation-specific, such as when a relationship ends or following diagnosis of a frightening illness — reportedly, this is the reason actor Robin Williams took his life last month. Most suicides also do not happen without warning. Deaths are preceded by verbal or behavioral portents.

For this reason, one of the most highly effective strategies for preventing suicides is simply to take away access to the most common means, including guns and certain medications. WHO also recommends targeting vulnerable groups — members of the LGBT community, people who have experienced trauma or abuse, refugees and migrants, indigenous people, prisoners, and the bereaved — for intervention. Key to preventing suicide is helping people build their resilience through the development of strong personal relationships and positive coping strategies, while reducing or eliminating the stigma of talking about self-harm. If people felt free to speak up, WHO suggests, many deaths might be eliminated. Other effective interventions include gaining education, attending support groups, and working with professionals and trained volunteers.

Regional Differences

Finally, suicide is all about context with vast differences existing around the world. In the Americas, for instance, suicide rates are generally lower than in other regions, while the suicide rate is highest in Southeast Asia. There, India accounts for the highest estimated number of suicides overall. Despite regional numbers, individual nations and cultures may stand out, such as the Republic of Korea and Guyana, both of which rank high on lists of estimated suicide rate globally. Six European countries, most prominently Lithuania, are also positioned among the top 20 highest suicide rates globally. Of great concern is that suicide is the main cause of death in many European countries within the 15-29 age group.

Having reviewed the landscape of suicide internationally, WHO recommends countries develop a comprehensive coordinated response involving the health, education, employment, and social welfare sectors. In past years, World Suicide Prevention Day has been commemorated with over 300 activities, including press briefings, conferences, and educational events, taking place in 70 countries. “We know what works,” said Dr. Shekhar Saxena, director of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse at WHO. “Now is the time to act.”