Why suicide is falling around the world, and how to bring the numbers down further still
“You know,” says a trader in “Margin Call”, a film about the crash of 2008, as he stands high on a building above Wall Street, “the feeling that people experience when they stand on the edge like this isn’t the fear of falling—it’s the fear that they might jump.” Suicide fascinates us. It is at once appalling and yet, in the darkest places in our minds, appealing. It is the most damaging sort of death. A child’s suicide is a parent’s worst nightmare, and a parent’s marks their children for life. It is a manifestation not just of individual anguish but also of a collective failure: if society is too painful to live in, perhaps we are all culpable.
The suicide rate in America is up by 18% since 2000. This is not merely a tragedy; it matters politically, too. The rise is largely among white, middle-aged, poorly educated men in areas that were left behind by booms and crushed by busts. Their deaths are a symptom of troubles to which some see President Donald Trump as the answer. Those troubles should not be ignored.
Nonetheless, beyond America’s gloomy trend is a more optimistic story: that at a global level, suicide is down by 29% since 2000. As a result, 2.8m lives have been saved in that time—three times as many as have been killed in battle. There is no one reason. It is happening at different rates among different groups in different places. But the decline is particularly notable among three sets of people.
One is young women in China and India. In most of the world, older people kill themselves more often than the young, and men more than women. But in China and India, young women have been unusually prone to suicide. That is decreasingly the case. Another group is middle-aged men in Russia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, alcoholism and suicide rocketed among them. Both have now receded. A third category is old people all around the world. The suicide rate among the elderly remains, on average, higher than among the rest of the population, but has also fallen faster since 2000 than among other groups.