Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Suicide Belt

The graphic I am showing you is a WHO-made map of the earth, colored by the suicide rate of each country, with the countries greyed out having data that is more than ten years old (and thus useless). I want you to notice something.

Hey, there's a pattern in this chart...

With the exception of Germany, country from France to the Pacific (including Japan), is in the highest rate category. Yes, for some reason, Europeans and Asians are committing suicide more than anyone else on earth. Something must be going terribly, terribly wrong. Also, the last time I saw this map, about 2 years ago, Germany was in the highest category, making the belt outright continuous.

The highest rate is in Lithuania. Wikipedia reports that 40.2 Lithuanians out of every 100,000 end their lives every year, out of a total population of 3,369,600. Doing the rather grim math, 1,355 Lithuanians take their lives each year. Men were five times more likely to kill themselves. Lithuanian commentators blamed everything from poor economy to national disruption, to homogeneity, to lack of childcare. The Lithuanian government is worried that Lithuanians might disappear in the future, especially since their birthrate plummeted to 1.3 children per couple.

Many of the other countries could have their high rates blamed on lack of prohibition against suicide (Japan), shoddy psychiatric services (the Koreas), being inside the Arctic Circle and thus having dark and depressing winters (Russia, Finland), social isolation (rural China), or Alcoholism (every country even close to the former soviet union).

While most of my (American) readers will probably assume that these statistics means that Europe and Asia are very depressing places, I don't think that depression is the only factor here. The lowest rates are in Central and South America, where people don't commit suicide for religious regions. Catholic Christianity, the most common religion there, teaches that it is evil to commit suicide because of two reasons. The first being that your life was a gift from God, and that ending it is insultingly returning it. The second being that it denied that God was just, which was blasphemous. So Central and South Americans might be just as depressed, but finding some other way to deal with it.

It is not clear how these countries came to have this problem, nor can I offer any real solution to them. Germany might be a good place to start looking, as their rate recently declined. This may be due to action on the part of German society, or the German government, or it may have just been spontaneous.

As a Lithuanian commentator wrote, "Every civilized state must take care of its people's health by proposing ways of preventing suicides."


Cairnarvon said...

I would guess that the fact that it's much easier to die anyway in South America has at least as much to do with their lower suicide rates as their religiosity.
Is euthanasia included in these numbers? Because the fact that that's legal in much of Europe may also account for a lot.

A lack of prohibition against suicide won't stop anyone, by the way. Japan has higher suicide rates because the culture encourages guilt complexes (complices?) and Japanese society comes down *very* hard on people who don't toe the line, not because suicide isn't illegal (it was legalised in most of the world over the course of the 20th century too).

I question the use of only three colors, though. France and Belgium certainly aren't in the same league as Lithuania or Russia. It just makes the map more misleading.

themadengineer said...

The data was supposedly compiled by the World Health Organization, and probably should have had more categories. France's rate of 18 and Belgium's rate of 18.9 are both far lower than any country in the former Soviet category.

Unfortunately, the WHO took down the page where they describe in detail about their data. I'm going to assume that they ARE clouding the water by including euthanasia in the suicide rate.

I found one better, more detailed map, but it was from a site whose biases I felt were excessive, since they blamed the high rates on "feminism." Not going to trust that.

Glad to have you point out the discrepancies and errors.

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