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Suicide risk high for young people

15 September 2009 -- A recent WHO study shows that young people are often at risk, and that suicide is the second largest cause of mortality in the 10-24 age group. However, there are different risk factors in different cultures.

Transcript of the podcast

Veronica Riemer: You’re listening to the WHO podcast, and my name is Veronica Riemer. Every year, almost 1 million people commit suicide; this is approximately 3 000 deaths a day, or 1 death every 40 seconds. A recent WHO study shows that young people are often at risk, and that suicide is the second largest cause of mortality in the 10-24 age group. As we mark World Suicide Prevention Day, we talk to three experts about this mental health issue.

Approximately every 40 seconds, another family loses a loved one to suicide. Most frequently it is associated with psychological factors such as the difficulty of coping with depression, inescapable suffering or fear, or other mental disorders and pressures. A suicide attempt is often a cry for help and attention, or an expression of despair and the wish to escape, rather than a genuine intent to die.

The theme this year's Suicide Prevention Day is suicide prevention in different cultures. Suicide affects everyone. However, there are different risk factors in different cultures. Doctor Alexandra Fleischmann, a scientist in the Department of Mental Health at WHO explains.

Alexandra Fleischmann: We know that mental disorders like depression or alcohol use disorders play a major role in European countries for instance. But we have also to look at Asian countries where impulsiveness plays a much more important role which is that suicide can happen on the spur of the moment.

Veronica Riemer: Access to means for suicide also vary across the world, for example, lethal doses of pesticides are easily available in farming communities. In some countries where families have loaded handguns at home, adolescents have easy access firearms to end their lives.

Prof George Patton, lead author of the study of global mortality among young people and Director of Adolescent Health Research at the Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne, Australia explains why adolescents are so vulnerable.

Prof George Patton: Suicide accounts for around 6% of all deaths in young males and young females and it becomes prominent as a cause of death in later adolescence and particularly so in young adulthood. It is something of a paradox in adolescent health, that although young people in the adolescent years are otherwise healthy, stronger, fitter, smarter than at any other point in their lives, certain health problems related to emotion, emotional control and behaviour worsen in this group and suicide is one of those problems.

At this age, particularly for young people who find themselves at margins of their communities, perhaps disengaged from school, perhaps disengaged from their families, those kinds of social circumstances and social stresses we know also to be major risk factors for suicide and they increase across the adolescent years.

Veronica Riemer: The majority of suicides are preventable and treatable. A small fraction of suicides are committed by mentally ill persons and these kind of suicides are often not preventable. But the majority of suicides are impulsive - a reaction to a very stressful event for example a love affair turning badly or financial debt.

Dr Benedetto Saraceno, WHO's Director of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, tells us about the work of WHO in this area.

Dr Benedetto Saraceno: WHO is working, for example, to reduce the accessibility to pesticide - we have demonstration projects in China, in India, in Sri Lanka and now we will start in Nicaragua simply trying to reduce the access of pesticides through very simple mechanism which is storing the pesticide in a locked cupboard where the access is not easy for a young person willing to respond to any suicidal impulse.

Veronica Riemer: WHO is recommending a number of means to governments to decrease suicide. One is training mental health workers, prison guards, teachers and army officers in early detection of depression. Another is to reduce alcohol consumption which is rising, particularly among young people. Educating the media in deglamourising suicide is also vital.

Dr Benedetto Saraceno: Media have an important responsibility when a rock star or important person is committing suicide. There is a tendency to transform this into a mediatic event, indirectly it is giving a message to young people, that this is a hero, this is a courageous way of living life. We have to tell young people that this is not a courageous way to live life but to escape the life.

Veronica Riemer: Finally one of the most important predictors of suicide is an attempted suicide. People who survive suicide attempts should be followed carefully as they are the ones most at risk for attempting a second time.

If you would like more information about this issue, or would like to read the WHO study published by the Lancet which gives details of other causes of adolescent mortality.

That's all for this episode of the WHO podcast. Thanks for listening. If you have any comments on our podcast or have any suggestions for future health topics drop us a line. Our email address is

For the World Health Organization, this is Veronica Riemer in Geneva.