Visualizing the surprisingly massive toll of suicide worldwide

Yes, ‘surprisingly massive’ is the best way to describe it.

The recent death of actor-comedian Robin Williams has sparked much-needed conversations about suicide, a global killer seldom discussed publicly due to stigma, fear or even the well-intended effort to avoid sparking copycat behavior – what some call ‘suicide contagion.’

Studies have shown that, done right, public discussion of celebrity suicides can help educate people and prevent those at risk from taking their own lives.

What will be surprising to many is that, worldwide, more years of life are lost as a result of suicide than from homicide. The screen grab below illustrates this point, showing that suicide (“self-harm”) accounted for the loss of more than 36 million years of life in 2010, while homicides (“interpersonal violence”) accounted for nearly 24 million years lost.

Years of life lost to interpersonal violence and self-harm in males, females, and both sexes, 2010

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The graphic also reveals how suicide disproportionately impacts men. Suicide is especially problematic in young men starting at age 15 and peaking in the 20- to 24-year age group, as illustrated in the next screen grab. Similarly, the burden of suicide among females tends to weigh most heavily on young women (see the data in the online visualization tool here).

Years of life lost to self-harm in males by age group, 2010

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The next image gives you a sense of how suicide ranks in comparison to other causes of early death in young and middle-aged men. Globally, suicide ranked third, right behind road injury and HIV/AIDS.

Top 20 causes of premature death in males, 2010

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In young and middle-aged women, suicide also ranks third behind HIV/AIDS and maternal disorders (see screen grab below).

Top 20 causes of premature death in females, 2010

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Suicidekey

Rates of death from suicide do vary dramatically around the world.

The map below shows rates of death from suicide in males in 2010. Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, and Lithuania stand out as the countries with the highest rates. More than 55 out of every 100,000 men died from suicide in 2010 in these countries. In Lithuania, the rate of death from suicide among males was 66 per 100,000. Harmful alcohol use, an important risk factor for suicide, is a major problem in these countries. In Russia, 73% of deaths from suicide in 2010 were attributable to alcohol use.

Rates of death from self-harm in males, 2010

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Overall, rates of death from suicide in females were not nearly as high as they were in males. Even in countries with the highest levels of suicide, shown in the map below (North Korea, South Korea, India, and Zimbabwe), rates did not exceed 30 per 100,000.

An article appearing in Wired UK explored the issue of high rates of female suicide in India, many of which were committed by ingesting agricultural chemicals. The article quoted Dr. Vikram Patel, Professor of International Mental Health & Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who cited violence against women and economic difficulties as the primary factors contributing to suicide in the country. According to the Global Burden of Disease project, violence committed by an intimate partner was linked to 53% of deaths from suicide among females in 2010.

Rates of death from self-harm in females, 2010

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Suicide is an all-too-common cause of early death worldwide and claims the lives of many men and women in their prime years. Expanding access to and quality of treatment for mental health issues is crucial for addressing this problem, as is combatting harmful alcohol use and violence against women.

Katie Leach-Kemon, a weekly contributor of global health visual information posts for Humanosphere, is a policy translation specialist from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

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About Author

Katie Leach-Kemon

Katherine (Katie) Leach-Kemon is a policy translation specialist at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). Katie specializes in two of IHME's research areas, the Global Burden of Disease and health financing. Katie has helped produce IHME's Financing Global Health report since it was first published in 2009. She received an MPH from the University of Washington and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger. Her work has been published in The Lancet, Health Affairs, and the Journal of the American Medical Association. You can follow her on Twitter @kleachkemon.

  • RachelG

    This is fascinating and well-presented, but I’d like to know more about where the statistics come from and how reliable they are. I imagine that reporting rates and quality – particularly for causes of death such as self-harm or interpersonal household violence – vary quite widely according to infrastructure, social stigma, and other factors. That makes these statistics sketchier than they seem at first glance here.