Why are these people now less likely to take their own lives? Urbanisation and greater freedom have helped. Accounts of those who attempt suicide, and of the relatives of those who succeed, suggest that many young Asian women were driven to despair by violent husbands and overbearing in-laws. As people move to cities and the grip of tradition loosens, women have more choice about whom they marry or live with, making life more bearable. Leaving the village helps in another way, too. Because farming involves killing things, rural folk are likelier to have the means to kill themselves—guns, pesticides—to hand.
Social stability is also a factor. In the turbulence that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, many middle-aged people saw their sources of income and status collapse. Unemployed people kill themselves at around two-and-a-half times the rate of those in work. The financial crash of 2007-08 and the resulting recessions are reckoned to have caused an extra 10,000 or so suicides in America and western Europe. As crises recede and employment rises, so suicide tends to ebb. And falling poverty rates among the old, which have declined faster than among other groups globally, are reckoned to have contributed to the drop in the number of elderly suicides.
But the decline is not just the consequence of big social trends. Policy plays a role, too. When Mikhail Gorbachev restricted the production and distribution of booze in the mid-1980s, both drinking and suicide fell sharply. The collapse of the Soviet Union swept those regulations aside, and both drinking and suicide shot up again. Restrictions introduced by Vladimir Putin in 2005 are reckoned to have contributed to the recent decline.
Governments can also help limit the consequences of social and economic turbulence. Active labour-market policies, which help re-train jobless workers and ease them back into work, prevent many suicides. And spending on health services, especially those that most benefit the old and sick, can make a big difference: fear of chronic pain is one of the things that leads people to seek a quick way out. The remarkable recent fall in suicide among elderly Britons may have happened in part because Britain’s palliative-care system is the best in the world.