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The World Health Organization's role in suicide prevention 

The World Health Organization's role in suicide prevention
The World Health Organization's role in suicide prevention

Benedetto Saraceno

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date: 05 July 2022

Suicide is not only a personal tragedy, but a serious international public health problem. The majority of suicides in the world (85 per cent) occur in low- and middle-income countries (Krug et al. 2002). Suicide is among the top three causes of death in the young population aged 15–34 (World Health Organization 2001).

Whereas national data about completed suicide exists for many countries, similar statistics on attempted suicide are largely missing, reflecting a lack of official or systematic national data collection. Hence, the scale of suicide attempts is not clearly known. Relying on hospital records and population surveys, it is estimated that attempted suicides are 10–20 times more frequent than completed suicides (Wasserman 2001).

The Secretary-General of the United Nations in his report to the General Assembly in 1991 drew attention to the fact that suicide was a significant and growing problem, particularly among youth. The ensuing monitoring process revealed a lack of comprehensive national strategies for preventing suicide and, in many countries, rapidly rising suicide rates. In 1993, a United Nations (UN) and World Health Organization (WHO) International Expert Meeting on Guidelines for the Formulation and Implementation of Comprehensive National Strategies for the Prevention of Suicidal Behaviour was held in Canada, which culminated in a report (United Nations 1996) that included a comprehensive set of guidelines, together with a case study of the Finnish national strategy. These guidelines encouraged the development of national suicide-prevention strategies around the world, for instance, in the United States (US Department of Health and Human Services 2001), where suicide was recognized as a national problem, and suicide-prevention as a national priority, as well as in Europe (WHO 2002b; Wasserman et al. 2004). In 1999, WHO launched the worldwide initiative for suicide prevention (SUPRE) with the overall goal of reducing the mortality and morbidity of suicidal behaviours.

The WHO, a specialized agency of the UN, is an intergovernmental organization, established by the formal agreement of, and ultimately governed by, 193 Member States. As the directing and coordinating authority on international health work, WHO stimulates international action on health issues of global concern with the ultimate objective of the attainment by all people of the highest possible level of health (WHO 2003). The WHO’s normative function and advocacy role, as well as its convening power in establishing global partnerships, places it in a unique position to provide leadership at global, regional and country levels.

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