- Canada scores a “B” and ranks 7th out of 17 peer countries.
- Canada’s suicide rate has been consistently below that of the peer-country average, and has dropped since its peak in 1978.
- Suicide is evidence not only of personal breakdown but also of a deterioration of the social context in which individuals live.
Putting suicides in context
The World Health Organisation defines suicide as an "act deliberately initiated and performed by a person in the full knowledge or expectation of its fatal outcome."1 The suicide rate is included as an indicator of social cohesion—the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) observes that the intentional taking of one’s life "is evidence not only of personal breakdown but also frequently of a deterioration of the social context in which individuals live."2
While mental illness is involved in most suicide cases, especially as a consequence of depression or substance abuse, this does not imply that everyone who commits suicide is “mentally ill.” Few people who commit suicide have ever been under known psychiatric observation or treatment.3
Suicide results from many different social and cultural factors:
- personal crises such as divorce or illness
- social isolation from unemployment
- drug and alcohol addiction
- depression and other forms of mental illness
Whether these factors result in suicide, however, is also determined by the level of support a society gives to mediate these factors.
Is Canada’s suicide rate higher than that of peer countries?
Canada’s current suicide rate is 11.1 deaths per 100,000 people, earning it a “B” grade. This rate is almost double that of Italy, the peer country with the lowest suicide rate, but it is significantly lower than that of Finland, Belgium, and Japan. Japan’s suicide rate is nearly double that of Canada.
Perhaps surprisingly, Canada’s suicide rate was higher than that of the U.S. from 1970 to 2003. This has now reversed. The current suicide rate for the U.S. is 12.0 per 100,000.
Has Canada’s suicide rate improved?
Canada’s suicide rate increased in the 1960s and 1970s, peaked in 1978 at 16.0 suicides per 100,000 population, and fell thereafter. The current suicide rate is 11.1 per 100,000 people, up from 10.4 in 2006.
The suicide rates of most peer countries dropped since the 1970s, with several exceptions. Ireland’s suicide rate increased steadily throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and most of the 1990s. It peaked in 1998 before tapering off. Ireland’s suicide rate of 11 suicides per 100,000 population in 2011 is much higher than the 1970 rate of 2.1 per 100,000.
Norway’s suicide rate rose in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, peaking at 17.3 in 1988. Although it has fallen since then, it remains higher than it was in the 1970s.
Both Belgium and Japan have had stubbornly high suicide rates. Belgium’s suicide rate has remained above 15 since the early 1960s, while Japan’s has been above 20 for most of those five decades.
An article in Time Online called suicide in Japan an “epidemic” and noted new and troubling trends: “People in their thirties are the most likely to kill themselves, and work-related depression is emerging as a prime motive.”4
Denmark has made the most progress in reducing deaths due to suicide, from 33.9 deaths per 100,000 population in 1980 to 11.6 in 2006.
Use the pull-down menu to compare the change in Canada’s suicide rate with that of its peers.
Has Canada’s relative grade improved?
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Canada has maintained a “B” grade on suicides since the 1960s.
Italy has been a consistent “A” performer for six decades. The U.K. and the Netherland improved from a “B” to an “A” in recent decades.
Finland has been a consistent “D” performer.
Why do suicide rates differ among the peer countries?
A study by economist John Helliwell found that the same factors explain suicides rates in many different countries. These factors include the prevalence of divorce, unemployment, quality of government, religious beliefs, trust in other people, and membership of non-religious organizations.5 Therefore, a country with high unemployment, for example, may also have a higher suicide rate.
But differences among countries may also reflect cultural or country-specific practices in recording deaths due to suicide—for example, the criteria used by officials to establish the person’s “intention” of killing themselves, confidentiality rules, and cultural and religious stigmas that put pressure to record suicides as being due to other causes.
Are there any gender or age differences in suicide rates?
Suicide is a predominantly male phenomenon. In every peer country, men are at least twice as likely to kill themselves as women. In Canada, the factor is three-to-one, while in the U.S. it is four-to-one.
In most OECD countries, the frequency of suicides rises with age. This is not true in Canada, except for the very elderly (that is, those aged 90 and over). One reason may be the lower elderly poverty rate in Canada than in peer countries.
Youth suicide, while not as prevalent as suicide in those aged 30 to 60 years of age, is a concern, and raises issues about youth disengagement. People under 25 years of age are more likely to commit suicide in Australia and Norway.
1 R.F.W. Diekstra, “Suicide and Attempted Suicide: An International Perspective,” Acta Psychiatrica Scandanauica, 80, S354 (October 1989), 1–24.
2 OECD, Society at a Glance: OECD Social Indicators—2006 Edition (Paris: OECD, 2006), 106.
3 OECD, Society at a Glance: OECD Social Indicators—2005 Edition (Paris: OECD, 2005), 90.
4 Leo Lewis, “Japan Gripped by Suicide Epidemic,” Time Online, June 19, 2008 (accessed August 31, 2009).
5 John F. Helliwell, Well-Being and Social Capita: Does Suicide Pose a Problem? NBER Working Paper No. 10896 (November 2004) (accessed August 31, 2009).