In a groundbreaking new review of suicide rates around the world, officials from the World Health Organization (WHO) have confirmed that more than 800,000 people take their own lives each year — which means that someone commits suicide every 40 seconds.
The findings, published on Thursday, mark the first time the global health agency has issued a report about suicide prevention. “This report is a call for action to address a large public health problem, which has been shrouded in taboo for far too long,” Margaret Chan, the WHO’s director general, said in a statement.
WHO found that people commit suicide all over the world, although 75 percent of these deaths occur among people from poor or middle-income countries. While people over the age of 70 are the most likely to end their lives, suicide is also the second leading cause of death among young people between the ages of 15 and 29.
The global health experts ultimately want to reduce the suicide rate by 10 percent over the next six years — but they note accomplishing that goal will involve much more coordinated efforts to address the issue. Right now, just 28 countries have a national suicide prevention strategy in place, and the stigma surrounding mental health issues dissuades many people from asking for help.
To start, there are a couple simple steps that more countries could be taking. Integrating regular mental health check-ups into primary care can help connect people with the services they need before it’s too late. The WHO report also found evidence from Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, the United States, and several European countries suggesting that limiting access to the tools people use to take their own lives — like guns and poison — can effectively prevent people from following through with suicide.
Among the number of people killed by guns, many more of those deaths actually result from suicide than from homicide. Several studies have found that fewer guns ultimately equal fewer suicides. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends removing firearms from the home entirely if the kids who live there are struggling with depression; the national doctors’ group says that locking them up simply doesn’t go far enough.
The WHO report also issues a call to action for the media, urging outlets to responsibly report on suicide deaths and refrain from sensationalizing the specific methods by which people kill themselves. Earlier this summer, after beloved actor and comic Robin Williams committed suicide, some media outlets garnered criticism for reporting too much specific detail about his death, which can trigger copycat suicides. Even some of the well-meaning tributes to the celebrity that became popular online sparked concerns among suicide prevention experts. WHO encourages more countries to develop national media guidelines for covering suicide attempts.
“We know what works. Now is the time to act,” Dr. Shekhar Saxena, the director of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse at WHO, said in a statement.
If you need help, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255.