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Suicide declining since the 1980s

20 May 2010

Suicide is a tragedy for individuals, their families and friends. But it can also reflect wider social problems, including depression and poor quality of life. For that reason, rates of suicide can offer insights into aspects of a society’s overall health.

There were an estimated  140,000 suicides in OECD countries in 2006, the most recent year for which internationally comparable data is available. Death rates were lowest in the southern European countries of Greece, Italy and Spain, as well as Mexico and the United Kingdom, at fewer than seven deaths per 100,000 people. They were highest in Korea, Hungary, Japan and Finland, at 18 or more deaths per 100 000 people.

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Suicide rates have fallen in most OECD countries since 1990, most notably in Denmark, Luxembourg and Hungary, where they fell by at least 40% (although Hungary’s rate is still relatively high). By contrast, they rose in Korea, Mexico and Japan (although Mexico’s rate remains relatively low). In Korea, suicide among men almost tripled after 1990, reaching 32 per 100,000 in 2006; rates for women were the highest in the OECD area, at 13 per 100,000. Various factors have been blamed, including economic downturn, weakening social integration and the erosion of traditional family support for the elderly.

Korea is not alone in having a higher incidence of male suicide. In general, death from suicide is three to four times more common among men than women in OECD countries. Suicide is also related to age, with people aged under 25 and the elderly especially at risk.

Note, compiling statistics on suicide can be a challenge. Countries differ in how such deaths are reported and investigated and in rules on confidentiality. So, international comparisons should be treated with caution.

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