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Decriminalizing suicide attempt in the 21st century

By Scott Cunningham, MD, PhD
Published June 24, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • It appears that criminalization of suicide attempts decreases the suicide rate; however, it is important to keep in mind that the suicide rate range is wide and suicides are often under-reported and misclassified.

Putting It Into Practice

It has been estimated by the World Health Organization (WHO) that there were 700,000 suicides worldwide in 2019 (9.9/100,000/year). A reduction in the suicide rate by 30% is the shared goal of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and the WHO’s Comprehensive Mental Health Action Plan.

Although evidence is lacking that decriminalizing suicide attempts will result in an increase in the suicide rate, suicide attempts are more likely to be reported and survivors of suicide attempts are more likely to be reported seek mental health counseling if not facing legal consequences. The global suicide rate has decreased between 2000 and 2019; however, suicide rates have declined in some countries (most notably, China [55%]) but increased in other countries.

Why this study matters

While it is not clear that criminalization of suicide attempts is a deterrent, it is clear that survivors of a suicide attempt often have persistent depression and psychache, and are likely to benefit from family and community support, and mental health intervention

Study design

The WHO Global Health Estimates was the source of data pertaining to suicides in the 20 countries that criminalize suicide, and population data were retrieved from the World Bank. The study period was 2000-2019.

Results and conclusion

Of the 20 countries (population = 972 million) that currently criminalize suicide attempts, the suicide rate between 2000 and 2019 was 2.5-40.9/100,000 population/year (mean = 8.3/100,000/year) compared with the suicide rate in countries that did not criminalize suicide attempts during the same period (9/100,000/year).

Original Source

Lew B, Lester D, Mustapha FI, et al. Decriminalizing suicide attempt in the 21st century: an examination of suicide rates in countries that penalize suicide, a critical review. BMC Psychiatry 2022;

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