PARIS (AFP) - Suicides have fallen globally by more than a third since 1990, according to a far-reaching analysis released on Thursday (Feb 7) that highlighted profound differences in the number of men and women taking their own lives.
The World Health Organisation lists suicide as a critical public health issue and estimates that at least 800,000 people kill themselves every year.
Although reporting of deaths from self-harm varies between nations, data models devised by the team behind the Global Burden of Disease - which tracks all known causes of death by country - show a clear downward trend in global suicide rates.
In results published in the BMJ journal, the study estimated that 817,000 people killed themselves in 2016 - a slight increase of 6.7 per cent since 1990.
However, as the global population has boomed over the last three decades, the team found that the rate of suicide adjusted for age and population size fell from 16.6 to 11.2 deaths per 100,000 people - a plunge of 32.7 per cent.
"Suicide is considered a preventable cause of death and this study shows that we should continue in our efforts towards suicide prevention," said Ms Heather Orpana, research scientist with the Public Health Agency of Canada and a collaborator on the study.
"With further efforts we could take further reductions in suicide mortality."
The Global Burden of Disease analysis, conducted each year by the Institute for Health and Metrics Evaluation, a think tank partly funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, estimates mortality by cause, location, age and gender extrapolated from hundreds of data sources.
While welcoming the overall downwards trend, the team behind Thursday's paper warned that in several regions of the world, suicide was still among the leading causes of years of lives lost.
In 2016, 34.6 million years of life were lost globally from suicide - that is, the age when suicide deaths occur compared with average life expectancy in a given region or nation.
In addition, men were still more likely to kill themselves than women in all regions and age groups, apart from 15- to 19-year-olds, though the analysis did not speculate why.
"Mortality rates were generally higher for men but there was considerable variability between men and women depending on the age, and even the country," Ms Orpana told AFP.
Globally, men hugely outpaced women for suicides, suffering 15.6 deaths per 100,000 compared with 7.0 for women.
The study found that the overall global mortality rate, including all causes of deaths, had fallen by more than 30 per cent since 1990, something often attributed to having fewer people living in absolute poverty and better access to healthcare.
Ms Orpana said the fact that both suicide deaths and overall mortality fell in close proximity suggested that suicide might be better tackled if treated as just another illness.
"Sometimes we might look at suicide as a different kind of health outcome than, say, cardiovascular disease or cancer, which are considered more traditional," she said.
"But what the similar rate (fall) may be telling us is that suicide may be similar to other health outcomes and in some ways may be driven by similar factors."
The WHO has targeted a 10 per cent cut in global suicide rates by 2020.
But the study authors highlighted huge variations in suicide trends on a country-by-country basis.
In China, the average rate of suicide deaths fell 64.1 per cent since 1990, but in places such as Zimbabwe, the rate had almost doubled in the same timespan.
"We are seeing what is an important reduction in global suicide mortality. But those reductions have not been consistent across regions, countries, sex or ages," said Ms Orpana.