The suicide rate among Americans ages 35 to 64 rose by roughly 28 percent between 1999 and 2010, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released Friday, up from 13.7 to 17.6 deaths per 100,000 people (the suicide rate is much higher for middle-aged men, at 27.3, than for women, at 8.1). The increase, the New York Times noted, is raising concerns that "a generation of baby boomers who have faced years of economic worry and easy access to prescription painkillers may be particularly vulnerable to self-inflicted harm."
The numbers are troubling, but how do they compare to rates in other parts of the world? Suicide data is notoriously hard to compile because it is believed to be vastly underreported -- and the level of reporting varies from country to country, which makes comparing rates across nations an inexact science. But a look at World Health Organization data indicates that the United States falls more or less in the middle of the pack for both male and female suicides, with 17.7 male deaths (38th-most among 105 countries) and 4.5 female deaths (40th) per 100,000 people (the transnational statistics are drawn from varying years).
Men commit suicide more often than women in nearly every nation listed by the WHO report. The only exceptions are China (14.8 women vs. 13.0 men) and the tiny island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe, which reports that no men commit suicide there and that women commit suicide at a rate of only 1.8 per 100,000. That data, though, was is from 1987.
Lithuania, meanwhile, has the highest suicide rate among men, with 61.3 deaths for every 100,000 citizens, followed by Russia (53.9), and one of the largest gender gaps, with the rate for Lithuanian women at 10.3. South Korea has the highest rate for women at 22.1 and more parity between genders, with a rate of 39.9 for men.
In 2008, Reuters took an in-depth look at Lithuania's struggle with suicide, noting that high rates are a particularly painful social issue for the post-Soviet Baltic states despite their economic growth:
Pensioners struggle to survive, healthcare facilities are often poor and cases of tuberculosis, a disease often associated with poverty, are far above the EU average.
Tens of thousands of Latvians and Lithuanians have emigrated to seek higher wages and a better life: others seek a more final way out....
Suicide is particularly prevalent in rural communities where unemployment rose following the dissolution of Soviet era collective farms....
People lack the necessary education and professional skills, or are too old to adapt to new realities, and the state has put too little effort in helping them, experts say. In desperation, many turn to alcohol, fuelling their feelings of hopelessness.
It's a phenomenon that prompted one WikiLeaks cable to dub Lithuania the "suicide capital of Europe."
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