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Suicides fall but still exceed road deaths

Flowers for a young man who committed suicide in Bern

(Keystone)

Suicide rates are decreasing across western Europe, but they remain higher in Switzerland than in many other European countries.

Figures show that the number of suicides continues to outstrip traffic fatalities - in 1999 there were 1,300 in Switzerland compared with 516 registered road deaths.

A report, based on statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO), compared suicide rates across Europe between 1980 and 1984, and again between 1995 and 1996.

The study revealed that in Switzerland the number of suicides fell by around 25 per cent over the last two decades.

But in many other western European countries, the rate has fallen by closer to 30 per cent. Mediterranean countries such as Greece and Italy have the lowest suicide rates in Europe.

No easy explanations

But Dr Bernadetto Saraceno, director of the WHO's Department of Mental Health, said there was no simple explanation for why some western European countries had higher suicide rates than others.

"I have no solid answer to this question," Saraceno told swissinfo.

"If you compare Switzerland to neighbouring countries where the conditions - economic, democratic, climate etc - are similar, we just don't have a solid explanation."

Nevertheless, Dr Fabio Levi of the University of Lausanne, who worked with Saraceno on the study, insisted Switzerland's suicide rate was a cause for concern.

"We do have a sad record on suicide," Levi told swissinfo. "It remains the primary cause of death among young people, surpassing road traffic accidents, Aids, and even drug overdose."

"It's still a major problem here," he continued. "Suicide accounts for ten to 15 per cent of all premature deaths among men."

Suicide is harder

Saraceno said one of the reasons for falling rates in western Europe was that it had become more difficult to commit suicide.

"The means for committing suicide have become harder to find," he said. "For example, gas used in the home has been detoxified."

"And the diagnosis and treatment of severe depression has improved significantly over the last two decades as well."

But while suicide rates are falling in western Europe, they are increasing in the east.

Former Soviet Union

"The top ten countries for suicide are all former Soviet Union states," said Saraceno.

"Here we have to say that the reasons go beyond the medical domain and into social environment. Factors such as economic deprivation and unemployment play a significant role."

For this reason, Fabio Levi believes suicide rates in Switzerland - where there is little social deprivation - will continue to fall.

One thing that hasn't changed, though, is the profile of a potential suicide.

"Men between the ages of 18 and 44, socially deprived, alcohol users, perhaps perpetrators of domestic violence or those involved in alcohol-related traffic accidents, this is the classic profile," explained Saraceno.

swissinfo, Imogen Foulkes

Suicide summary

Suicide rates are falling all over western Europe, but more slowly in Switzerland than in other countries
Former Soviet Union states report more suicides than anywhere else in the world
There are no solid explanations as to why some countries have higher suicide rates than others, but social factors play a significant role.
Men are still much more likely to commit suicide than women.

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