Suicide kills more people each year than road traffic accidents in most European countries, the World Health Organization is warning. And globally, suicide takes more lives than murder and war put together, says the agency in a call for action.I have two complaints about this article. First, it claims that reducing access to suicide methods will reduce the suicide rate:
The death toll from suicide – at almost one million people per year – accounts for half of all violent deaths worldwide, says the WHO. “Estimates suggest fatalities could rise to 1.5 million by 2020,” the agency warned on Wednesday.
"It's important to realise that suicide is preventable," points out Lars Mehlum, president of the International Association for Suicide Prevention. "And that having access to the means of suicide is both an important risk factor and determinant of suicide."Now, if you’re going to make a claim like that, it would nice to have a little evidence. As it happens, I’ve done some research on this topic, and the evidence just isn’t there. Despite numerous studies, support for the conclusion that reducing access to a suicide method will reduce the suicide rate is mixed at best. Studies have frequently found a statistically significant relationship between access to a method and suicides by that method, but rarely have studies found a statistically significant relationship between access to a method and total suicides.
The most common methods for committing suicide include swallowing pesticides, using firearms and overdosing on painkillers. Curbing access to these methods is a crucial factor in preventing suicide.
Second, WHO abuses terminology to justify its prescription for global action:
"Suicide is a tragic global public health problem,” says Catherine Le Galès-Camus, WHO’s assistant director general for non-communicable diseases and mental health. “There is an urgent need for coordinated and intensified global action to prevent this needless toll."Now what, exactly, qualifies any given health issue as a “public health problem”? Suicide seems to me a quintessentially private matter. Yes, suicides do adversely affect the families, friends, and coworkers of the suicidal person. But the same is true of nearly anything that takes a person’s life, especially in a traumatic fashion. If the term “public health” is to have any meaning distinct from just “health,” either (a) there should be some non-trivial element of contagion involved, or (b) the issue should be closely connected to some public facility, such as the sewer system or public highways. At a minimum, the health problem should have substantially greater external effects than the typical illness.
Even if one buys that suicide is a public health problem – perhaps because suicides sometimes occur in clusters, indicating some degree of “psychological contagion” – what warrants WHO’s call for international action? Nothing about suicide makes it a “global” problem, except the mere fact that it occurs in every country. So does acne. Suicide is not transmitted from country to country. The suicide rate of one country is of no special concern to other countries, except in the trivial sense that compassionate people have a tendency to care about other humans’ deaths. Suicide is no more a matter of international concern than obesity – another fundamentally individual or (with a major stretch of the imagination) national concern that WHO has nonetheless dubbed a “public health problem” and a “global epidemic.” Looks like WHO has a chronic case of mission creep.