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East: WHO Report Confirms Eastern Europe's Place At Top Of Suicide Table

  • Kathleen Moore

Prague, 3 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- One person is murdered every 60 seconds and suicides are even more frequent -- particularly in Eastern Europe.

Those are some of the grim findings of a report on violence worldwide released today by the World Health Organization.

Authors of the report say it is the most comprehensive study to date into all forms of violence and marks the beginning of a year-long campaign to prevent what the authors call a "shocking" level of violence throughout the world.

The report's authors gathered information from 150 countries in an effort to present violence as a public health problem that can be prevented or treated like a disease.

In all, the WHO said some 1.6 million people met a violent death in 2000, through either murder, suicide, or war.

Half of those deaths were through suicide, with men more than three times as likely to kill themselves as women. Suicide rates also tend to increase with age.

The report confirms Eastern Europe's place at the top of the world's suicide league.

The annual suicide rate per 100,000 people was 51 in Lithuania, 43 in Russia, 41 in Belarus, 38 in Estonia, 37 in Kazakhstan, and 36 in Latvia.

By comparison, the rate was 14 in the U.S. and about 9 in the U.K. Countries in Latin America and Asia have some of the lowest rates.

The report says a host of factors are related to suicidal behavior -- some individual, some social and environmental. A family history of suicide often plays a part, perhaps through a genetic trait or an inherited psychiatric disorder. Availability of the means to kill oneself, like access to guns or poisons, also increases the risk.

The report notes a strong correlation between alcohol consumption -- high in many countries in the region -- and suicide rates. Initial depression could drive some people to drink. With others, it's the booze that can bring on a decline that later leads to suicide.

By contrast, commitment to religious beliefs appears to be an inhibiting factor.

Dr. Andres Villaveces of the WHO's Department of Injuries and Violence Prevention, which produced the report, says it appears to be a combination of factors that leads to the high suicide rates in Eastern Europe. Chief among them, he says, is the social upheaval and harsh economic realities that followed the collapse of communism.

"There are other factors such as psychiatric illness and depression, and depression is many times associated with the social conditions of a country. So these are very important risk factors that in many cases when they combine can lead to or explain such high levels of suicide in the region of Eastern Europe."

Villaveces stresses it's not poverty itself that can stoke the pressures that lead to suicide -- rather it's the social inequality, or widening gap between rich and poor.

"Within that society at different levels, those changes, for example, unemployment [can] occur in societies that are richer, in fact if you see the statistics, suicide rates tend to be higher in countries that are richer overall economically."

In the countries that make up the former Yugoslavia, Slovenia has the highest suicide rate of 33, followed by Croatia (24.8), Bosnia-Herzegovina (14.8), and Macedonia (10). No figure is given for Yugoslavia.

Kazakhstan is the suicide leader in Central Asia, according to the report, with a rate of 37.4. That's double the rate of Kyrgyzstan, and the other three Central Asian republics have smaller figures still.

Romania (14), Slovakia (15.4), Bulgaria (16.4), and the Czech Republic (17.5) are all within close range of each other.

By contrast, Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan all report much lower suicide rates -- under 6 per 100,000 -- though Villaveces says this may be due to differences in the way suicides are classified and reported.

While men are on average three times more likely to kill themselves as women, in some countries this ratio is greater -- in Belarus, for example, there are nearly 7 male suicides for every female one, and in Lithuania the ratio is more than 6 to one.

Villaveces says effective alcohol and drug control, coupled with treatment for substance abusers, is one way to help cut the number of suicides. Good access to treatment for depression also helps -- though this is likely to be low on the list of priorities of countries with scant health budgets.

"In countries or in regions where depression rates are very high, if treatment or adequate access of the population to treatment of such states is not available then it is likely that suicide rates might be higher. But if there is access to treatment and these conditions are treated then it has been shown that suicide rates are lower."

As regards homicides, the report says Russia and Albania are the most dangerous places to live in Eastern Europe, with murder rates of more than 21 per 100,000 people. That compares with a homicide rate of 11.7 in Ukraine and 2.3 in Slovakia.

(The WHO report can be found on