Figures and facts about suicide

Suicide is now one of the three leading causes of death among people between the ages of 15-34 years.

  • In many places suicide deaths are concealed for various reasons and figures may be much higher in reality.
  • Recording and reporting standards differ between countries making comparisons difficult.
  • It can take 2-4 years for data to be forwarded to the WHO.
  • 1.53 million people are predicted to die by suicide in 2020, according to current trends.
  • Nearly 30% of all suicides worldwide occur in India and China.
According to World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates, in the year 2000, approximately one million people died from suicide, and 10 to 20 times more people attempted suicide worldwide. This represents one death every 40 seconds and one attempt every 3 seconds, on average.

This also indicates that more people are dying from suicide than in all of the several armed conflicts around the world and, in many places, about the same or more than those dying from traffic accidents.

In all countries, suicide is now one of the three leading causes of death among people aged 15-34 years; until recently, suicide was predominating among the elderly, but now suicide predominates in younger people in both absolute and relative terms, in a third of all countries.

Some WHO Member States have been reporting on causes of death since WHO's inception. For several countries, information series are available from 1950 onwards, whereas other countries started sending this information later on.

Although country data are available almost always on a yearly basis, an option was made to present the data on a five-year interval, because it was generally felt that this time interval provided a reasonable overall picture.

Whenever figures on suicide are presented or discussed, there is always someone to question their reliability, insisting that in many places - and due to several reasons - suicide is hidden and that the real figures must be much higher. This point is acknowledged, which only reinforces the gravity of what is presented here. 

Another question frequently raised refers to the comparability of data across countries. The information on which the graphs are based reflects the official figures made available to WHO by its Member States or by their national officers responsible for suicide prevention; in turn, these are based upon real death certificates signed by legally authorized personnel, usually doctors and to a lesser extent police officers. 

The most recent data refer to some years ago and a word about the time to process the information is appropriate. Mortality data (due to all cases, not just suicide) in a given year are collected and processed in subsequent years at a central level in each country. 

Once the data have been collected, there is an internal verification; should there be any inconsistency, these are returned to where they originated from for rectification. If a single province delays sending its data, the information on the whole country will be delayed. Also, when there is a judicial procedure to define the cause of death, this may represent a certain delay in the compilation of the country's whole mortality information. 

Only when the country's central level is satisfied with the data set, it is sent to WHO, where it is again re-examined for internal consistency. In the best of conditions this whole process usually takes 2-4 years. This explains why, the “most recent data” refer to a few years ago, but vary from country to country.

A word of caution is needed in relation to the interpretation of rates (per 100,000) in countries with small populations: a few more - or less - suicides can greatly modify the rates, thus giving a wrong impression of important increases or decreases, respectively.

The reduction of mortality and morbidity associated with suicidal behaviours is high in WHO's agenda. Obtaining appropriate information is the first step in a public health strategy for the prevention of undesirable outcomes.

Unfortunately, information about means employed for committing suicide - a fundamental information for suicide prevention programmes - is not available at the same level as the information presented here on the incidence of suicide. This is something to be rectified in the future.

WHO estimated in 2002, in the year 2020 there will be approximately 1.53 million people who will die by suicide, according to current trends. Woldwide, suicide attempts will be about 10-20 times more than deaths by suicide. This is an average of one suicide every 20 seconds and every 1-2 seconds, there will be a suicide attempt.

Nearly 30% of all suicides worldwide occur in India and China.

(Source: World Health Organization)