UN Body Takes On Rising
September 09, 2006
By Nikola Krastev
A drunk man lies passed out in a Minsk park in July (Bymedia.net)
UNITED NATIONS, September 9, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The World Health
Organization (WHO) has proclaimed September 10 World Suicide
Each year, more than 1million people take their own lives - more
than the combined annual deaths from homicides and wars. Suicide
is a leading cause of death among teenagers and adults under 35.
Men are three times more likely to attempt suicide than women,
but rates among women have risen alarmingly fast in the last
Jose Manoel Bertolote, coordinator of the Management of Mental
and Brain Disorders at the WHO, says that when the Soviet Union
broke up 15 years ago, the newly independent countries began to
track their own suicide rates, which reflected their unique
Rates Rise, Rates Fall
In the European part of the former communist empire, rates rose
dramatically, he said, but they went down in the Central Asian
The WHO is looking into another possible correlation: in the
last few years it has been running an extensive study on whether
HIV-infection rates have an effect on suicide rates.
“The modification of the social regime not only didn’t [produce]
the same result, [it gave] disparate results," Bertolote says.
"The most likely explanation for this is that the separation
from the common Soviet regime revealed much more of the natural
[population] trends in these former republics. For instance, in
the most western Soviet republics -- Ukraine, Belarus, and the
Baltic States, which had a natural tendency to higher suicide
rates -- it increased. Whereas in the Central Asian republics --
which are to a large extent Muslim republics, [including]
Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan -- suicide rates dropped.”
According to the latest WHO data (from 2003), the leader of this
grim statistic among former Soviet republics is Lithuania, with
75 male and 11 female suicides per 100,000 people. Russia is
second (70/12), followed by Belarus (63/10).
Brian Mishara, the president of the International Association
for Suicide Prevention (IASP), says that in the countries of the
former Soviet Union -- with the exception of the Baltic States
-- there is an almost total lack of government-sponsored
programs on suicide prevention.
Developing Support Network
Developed European countries have had such policies in place for
decades, he said.
But he notes positive developments in places like Russia,
Ukraine, and Belarus, where nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)
operate crisis hotlines and push governments to fund education
programs on the causes of suicide.
Mishara also told RFE/RL that one of the reasons for the recent
high reported rates of suicide could be that in Soviet times,
incidents of suicide were hidden by the authorities.
“There are help lines available in literally all those countries
and there are organizations working on a grassroots level,"
Mishara said. "One of the phenomena is the strong association
between alcoholism and suicide. In fact, some studies have shown
that the availability costs of vodka have some relationship to
suicide rates, as well. The other thing is that suicide rates
might artificially appear to be much higher after the breakup of
the former Soviet Union simply because there was more open
admission to the fact that there were suicides and they were
An Alcohol Connection?
Bertolote says that during the final stages of the Soviet Union,
several studies had begun to reveal the close correlation
between alcohol consumption and suicide rates.
“There are quite a few good studies indicating the role of
alcohol in suicide rates in the former Soviet republics and
Russia, in particular," Bertolote says. "These are very
interesting studies showing that throughout the regimes of
[Yuri] Andropov and then [Mikhail] Gorbachev and then [Boris]
Yeltsin afterward -- who had completely different policies on
alcohol control -- suicide rates followed very closely the
alcohol consumption. When the policies were more restrictive,
less alcohol was available -- suicide rates were much smaller.
When the alcohol control was relaxed -- suicide rates
Illegally produced vodka that was seized in Volgograd, Russia,
this month (epa)
Those studies take on an added importance when one considers
that the official suicide rates in many Muslim countries are
much lower compared to predominantly Christian countries.
Muslims do not drink alcohol.
The most recent WHO suicide rate report says Iran has 0.3 male
deaths and 0.1 female deaths per 100,000 people. Azerbaijan's
rates are 1.2 and 0.4.
But both Bertolote and Mishara caution that the differential may
be simply because governments in Muslim countries, like former
Soviet authorities, do not want to acknowledge the problem.
Looking At HIV
WHO is looking into another possible correlation: in the last
few years it has been running an extensive study on whether
HIV-infection rates have an effect on suicide rates.
Bertolote said although the study is not finished, early results
have revealed some trends.
“The studies indicated that the suicides occurred at the moment
of the testing, when people learned that they were
HIV-positive," Bertolote says. "Some people decide to commit
suicide rather than going through the painful condition of being
HIV-positive. Then the introduction of the treatment, the
antiviral therapy, the 'cocktail' treatment, decreased suicide
rates. So when people learned that there was hope, they didn’t
According to WHO data, in some countries people with HIV/AIDS
are as much as eight times more likely to attempt suicide.
Russia and Ukraine are both believed to be on the verge of major
The issue of suicide prevention is not without controversy.
Politicians and medical professionals alike have questioned
whether governments should interfere with the personal decision
to end one's life.
But Bertolote dismisses this, citing studies that show 96
percent of people who attempt suicide have diminished or heavily
distorted mental judgment capabilities.