WHO launches new resources on prevention and decriminalization of suicide

12 Sep 2023
WHO launches new resources on prevention and decriminalization of suicide

September 12, 2023 (PAHO) — Today the World Health Organization (WHO) launches two resources designed to strengthen suicide prevention efforts: Preventing suicide: a resource for media professionals (2023 update) and a policy brief on the health aspects of decriminalization of suicide and suicide attempts.

Suicide is a major public health problem. Each year more than 700,000 people take their own life. It is the fourth leading cause of death among 15–29-year-olds. Not only is each loss of life tragic in itself, but it also has profound and devastating effects on families and entire communities.

Suicide can be linked to multiple, complex, and intersecting social, economic, cultural, and psychological factors and challenges, including the denial of basic human rights and access to resources as well as stressful life events such as loss of livelihood, work or academic pressures, relationship breakdowns and discrimination, among others.

Reducing the global suicide rate by one third by 2030 is a target of both the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the WHO Global Mental Health Action Plan. Urgent action is needed to meet the 2030 goal, and countries have committed to taking concrete measures in this direction.

“Each death by suicide is a tragedy, and more must be done to strengthen suicide prevention. The resources launched by WHO today provide important guidance on two areas which are critical to suicide prevention efforts: decriminalisation of suicide and suicide attempts and responsible reporting of suicide by the media,” said Dévora Kestel, Director of Mental Health and Substance Use, World Health Organization.

Decriminalising suicide and suicide attempts

Suicide and suicide attempts are criminalized in the laws of at least 23 countries worldwide and suicide attempts continue to be actively punished in some of them. The criminalization of suicide perpetuates an environment that fosters blame towards people who attempt suicide and deters people from seeking timely help due to the fear of legal repercussions and stigma.

Drawing on the experiences of countries that have recently decriminalized suicide and suicide attempts, including Guyana, Pakistan and Singapore, the WHO policy brief on health aspects of the decriminalization of suicide and suicide attempts sets out recommendations for policy-makers, legislators and other decision-makers considering reform in this area.

Key recommendations focus on developing national suicide prevention strategies; budgeting for ‘post-decriminalization’ training for first line responders; establishing rights-oriented community-based mental health services; formulating new mental health related laws and policies that promote quality care and the rights of persons with mental health conditions and psychosocial disabilities.

“Criminalizing suicide only serves to exacerbate people’s distress. The decriminalisation of suicide and suicide attempts is a critical step that governments can take in their efforts to prevent suicide. WHO is committed to supporting efforts to decriminalise suicide” said Nathalie Drew Bold, WHO Technical Officer.

The policy brief also sets out how decriminalisation saves lives by reducing the stigma and shame associated with suicide and promoting an environment where people feel able to seek help; allowing for improved data collection on suicide and suicide attempts which can better inform appropriate interventions; and by increasing opportunities for awareness-raising and advocacy around suicide prevention.

Promoting responsible reporting on suicide

The fourth edition of Preventing suicide: a resource for media professionals, produced in collaboration with the International Association for Suicide Prevention, summarizes current evidence on the impact of media reporting of suicide, and provides practical guidance for media professionals on how to report on suicide responsibly.

“Responsible media coverage of suicide is an important tool in our collective suicide prevention efforts. By using this resource, media professionals can help minimize imitative behaviours through accurate, appropriate, and empathetic reporting on suicide, and encourage people to seek vital help,” said Dr Alexandra Fleischmann, Scientist at WHO.

There is overwhelming evidence that the media can play a significant role in either strengthening or undermining suicide prevention efforts.  For example, evidence shows that vulnerable persons (such as those with a history of suicide attempts or thoughts, or those exposed to suicide) are at an increased risk of engaging in imitative behaviours following media reports of suicide – particularly if the coverage is extensive, prominent, sensational, explicitly describes the method of suicide, makes suicide appear to be normal, or perpetuates widely-held myths about suicide. The resource offers guidance on how to ensure that reporting on suicide is accurate, responsible, and appropriate.

The resource also highlights increasing evidence that reporting focused on survival and resilience can lead to positive imitative behaviours and can contribute to suicide prevention. It also sets out guidance on how to report on stories on recovery and mental and emotional well-being.