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Calls mount for more action over suicide

Workers add a security fence to a bridge near Zug after a spate of suicides Keystone

Suicide is the biggest killer of young Swiss aged 15-24 but the lack of a national prevention strategy means the death toll is unlikely to fall soon, say experts.

This content was published on September 10, 2007 - 19:28

Hopes are that Monday’s World Suicide Prevention Day will help raise awareness of the issue. Around 1,400 Swiss take their own life every year.

This is double the number of people that die in road accidents and at a rate above the international average.

The problem, according to prevention experts, is the absence of a national strategy to tackle suicide – a fact that is not disputed by the Federal Health Office.

Under Switzerland’s federal system, suicide prevention work is left to the country’s 26 cantons.

But while some local authorities are fairly active, others “do virtually nothing”, according to Florian Irminger of the Geneva-based Stop Suicide Association.

In the run-up to World Suicide Prevention Day, the association has been drawing attention to the country’s high suicide rate via a thought-provoking poster campaign sponsored by the city of Geneva.

But the posters have only gone up in 27 towns and cities in the Lake Geneva region, which Irminger says is symptomatic of a wider failure to address suicide in Switzerland.

“Switzerland is the most developed country where there is no data on suicides, and that’s a ridiculous situation,” he told swissinfo. “It’s amazing really when you consider that it’s the biggest killer of young people.”

Biggest killer

The Initiative for Suicide Prevention in Switzerland (Ipsilon), which was formed in 2003 and comprises more than 20 medical, prevention and aid organisations, takes a similar view.

“Until we get a national strategy, we don’t see the situation changing – or at least not very much,” said Barbara Weil, Ipsilon’s general secretary.

“The cantons can make a difference, but until there is better coordination we cannot measure or evaluate what is happening.”

Weil said a new federal law on health prevention and promotion was in the pipeline but she warned that it was only at an embryonic stage.

“It could take six to ten years before it becomes law, and during that time suicide will still be a problem in Switzerland,” she added.

New legislation

Salome von Greyerz, head of strategy and policy at the Federal Health Office, confirmed that a new law was under consideration and was awaiting the green light from the government.

According to von Greyerz, legislation is likely to cover mental illness, but would not include suicide, which is not seen by the Swiss authorities as a mental illness.

“However 90 per cent of suicides are linked to mental illness and we can still influence the number of suicides,” she said.

“If we have prevention and health promotion strategies for mental illness, we think that would have a direct effect on suicide figures.”

The health office says that since it published a study on suicide in Switzerland two years ago officials have also been working with the cantons to tackle depression.

But von Greyerz admits there are insufficient resources at a federal level to tackle suicide at present – and it is not a political priority, she says.

“From the public health point of view, suicide prevention should be an important goal but it is not at the moment,” she said.

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont

In brief

The number of suicides in Switzerland is around 1,400 a year, with 19.1 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. Suicide accounts for more deaths than car accidents, drugs and Aids together.

One person in ten in Switzerland takes their own life or has made at least one suicide attempt, according to a Federal Health Office study published in 2005.

According to a separate study by researchers at Zurich University, Switzerland and the United States have the highest rates of suicide involving guns in the world.

The study said that tighter gun laws would lead to fewer suicides involving firearms in Switzerland. A recent report said there were 3.4 million firearms in circulation in Switzerland.

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World Suicide Prevention Day

World Suicide Prevention Day focuses attention on the estimated 1 million suicides that take place every year around the world.

This year organisers are stressing the fact that the prevention of suicide is everybody's business, not just the responsibility of experts.

In Switzerland candles were lit in the cities of Basel, Geneva, Lucerne and Zurich to commemorate the victims of suicide.

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