09/25/2012 12:04 EDT | Updated 11/25/2012 05:12 EST

Are Suicide Rates Declining Worldwide?

Although collecting health statistics across the world can seem almost impossible because of political unrest, economic problems, wars, and simple bureacracy, the World Health Organization has been collecting mortality statistics since the 1950s for most countries. In spite of that, there are still gaps where some health statistics are largely unavailable. Tracking suicide statistics over the years has been an particularly thankless task considering the stigma surrounding suicide deaths and even attempted suicides in almost every country around the world.

Still, as part of a 1999 WHO campaign to promote suicide prevention, a WHO task force created the first global suicide mortality tables covering death statistics from 120 countries during the years 1950 to 1995. The tables showed a steady rise in suicides over time (especially for males) and projected a continued increase in suicide deaths if no action was taken. Based on the widely publicized 1999 campaign, the WHO launched SUPRE (the WHO Suicide Prevention Program) to promote suicide awareness internationally.

But how effective has the WHO SUPRE campaign been? In a recent editorial in Crisis: the Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention, two prominent suicide researchers examined recent WHO suicide statistics and compared them to suicide statistics from 20 years previously. The two researchers, Jose Manuel Bertolote of Brazil's Botucatu Medical School and Diego De Leo of Australia's Griffith University examined suicide statistics by age and sex for the most recent available period (2004 to 2009) and compared them to the 1992-1995 suicide statistics.

In overall number of suicide deaths, there appears to be a significant decrease in the most recent period compared to suicide rates from 20 years previously. Although men are still more likely to commit suicide than women (especially as they grow older), suicides have declined for almost all age groups.

Despite the overall trend, some troubling signs have emerged including a nearly 40 per cent increase in suicides among women under the age of 14. It is still not clear whether these trends are due to increased suicides or more accurate reporting when suicides happen.

While suicide figures from large countries such as China, Nigeria, India and Indonesia are still missing, Professors Bertolote and DeLeo argue that the available evidence from 62 countries show that overall suicide trends appear to be declining. Despite disturbing new trends, including suicides among younger women, the WHO suicide prevention campaign may be having some effect in countering suicide worldwide.

The editorial includes important cautions, however, since the large gaps in available suicide data makes it difficult to make accurate predictions of what the next 20 years wil bring.

Are suicide rates declining worldwide? Perhaps, but the need for worldwide suicide prevention campaigns is as strong as ever.