Accessibility links

UN: Health Report Deals With Suicide Prevention

  • Kevin Foley

United Nations statistics show that about one million people a year commit suicide. Rates of suicide on average are far higher in the former socialist countries than elsewhere. Suicide is also an increasing concern of public health officials in the United States, where a suicide takes place every 17 minutes. A new national suicide prevention program announced by the government this week is the feature story in this week's RFE/RL Health report by K.P. Foley.


U.S. Sets Suicide Prevention Strategy

Washington, 4 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Suicide has become the eighth leading cause of death in the United States, so the government -- in partnership with non-profit groups -- this week began implementation of what officials call a national strategy for suicide prevention.

At a Washington press conference this week, Bernard Arons, the director of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said suicide takes tens of thousands of lives each year. The World Health Organization (WHO) says the global deaths from suicide are about one million annually.

"There are more than 30,000 individuals who end their lives by suicide each year in the United States."

In addition, an estimated 650,000 people in the U.S. attempt suicide each year, and, according to Arons, many people who make suicide attempts never seek professional help after the attempt. Arons also said that suicide always has more than one victim.

"The effects of suicide are multiplied many times over. A suicide leaves deep scares on a family, on schools and workplaces, and even on entire communities."

More than half of all suicides are among adult men between the ages of 26-65, and in the past 40 years, the number of suicides among adolescents and young adults nearly tripled.

According to the WHO, suicide worldwide is estimated to represent 1.8 percent of the total global burden of disease. In the former socialist countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, suicide accounts for 2.4 percent of the disease burden. The "burden of disease" is a measure used by public health agencies to determine the total cost to a society from a health problem. The measurement includes things such as lost wages and productivity and the cost of caring for the sick and injured.

The WHO notes that suicide rates are generally much higher in the former communist countries than elsewhere, and the rates of suicide are significantly higher among men than among women. In Estonia, for example, the suicide rate for men is 59.4 for every 100,000; for women the rate is 10.5 per 100,000. In Belarus, the male suicide rate is 63.4 per 100,000 and for women it is 10.1 per 100,000. The rate for men in Russia is 66.4 per 100,000 and for women it is 12.3 per 100,000.

However, high suicide rates are not universal throughout the former Soviet Union. In Georgia, for example, the male suicide rate is 5.4 per 100,000 while for women it is 2.0 per 100,000. Suicide rates are comparatively lower in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

The United Nations implemented a major suicide prevention program in 1999. The U.S. strategy unveiled this week is the result of an effort undertaken in 1998, when U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher made suicide prevention a priority. He told the press conference that suicide can be prevented.

"Only recently have we had the knowledge and the tools available to us to approach suicide as a public health problem with realistic opportunities to save lives. But if we apply the existing knowledge, we can significantly lower the rate of suicide in this country."

The U.S. strategy sets specific goals to reduce suicide. These include the prevention of premature deaths from suicide across the life span; the reduction in rates of other suicidal behaviors; reduction of the harmful after-effects associated with suicidal behaviors and the traumatic impact of suicide on family and friends, and the promotion of opportunities to strengthen the mental health of individuals. Satcher said health experts must "make it clear that suicide prevention is everybody's business."

(More information on the U.S. program at and information on global suicide issues and individual country statistics at )


Congress Debates Proposed Ban On Human Cloning

The U.S. Congress will consider a proposal that would ban the cloning of human beings.

Senator Sam Brownback, a Republican from the Midwestern state of Kansas, is one of the Senate supporters of an anti-cloning measure. He says there is no need for cloning technology "to ever be used with humans." Legislation introduced in the Senate, as well as in the House of Representatives, would impose ten-year prison terms and fines of up to $1 million for anyone convicted of cloning a human, participating in the cloning of a human, or importing human clones into the United States.

When scientists speak of cloning, they mean the process of making copies of a specific piece of the chemical -- the DNA -- inside the nucleus of a cell that carries the genetic instructions for making living organisms. Genetic researchers have successfully cloned mammals such as sheep and pigs, but only after many failures. There is widespread opposition to the cloning of humans -- from the Vatican and several European Union member-governments and many scientists.

However, supporters of the concept say cloning could be used to help couples produce children and some entrepreneurs have vowed to press ahead with cloning plans.


Genetic Risk Knowledge May Do More Harm Than Good

In a related genetics story, a London research team says just knowing whether a person is genetically at risk for a certain disease may not change an individual's health behavior, and in some cases it could even do harm.

Theresa Marteau of King's College in London looked at whether genetic information convinces some people to change behaviors that influence the risk of developing ailments such as heart disease and cancer. The findings appeared in last week's issue of the British Medical Journal.

Marteau and her colleagues wrote that overall, genetic information does not appear to motivate people to make any more behavioral changes -- such as quitting smoking -- than they would make with just the knowledge of a family history of a disease.

Marteau also said that some people who learn of a genetic predisposition to disease decide that fate controls them, and that their risk of disease cannot be reduced at all.


Quitting Smoking Said Harder For Women

The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) says a review of studies on smoking cessation concludes that even though women may suffer more from the effects of smoking, they have a harder time quitting than men.

According to the NIH, the research shows that, among other things, nicotine replacement therapy may not be as effective for women; women smokers worry more than men about gaining a lot of weight if they quit; and medications to aid smoking cessation are not currently recommended for pregnant women.

In addition, the research findings indicate women may be more susceptible than men to environmental cues to smoking, such as smoking with specific friends or smoking associated with specific moods. And many women may enjoy the feeling of control associated with smoking a cigarette.

The NIH says three million women have died from smoking-related diseases since 1980, and women currently suffer 39 percent of all smoking-related deaths. The NIH says the results of smoking research on men and women makes it clear that better approaches must be found to help women overcome the addiction to nicotine.