Do countries with more mental illness have more suicides?
At first glance, it seems as though the answer must be “yes”. Although not all suicides are related to mental illness, unsurprisingly people with mental illness do have a much higher suicide rate than people without. So, all other things being equal, the rate of mental illness in a country should correlate with the suicide rate. Of course, all other things are not equal, and other factors might come into play such as the quality of mental health services. But it still seems as though there should be a correlation, albeit not a perfect one, between mental illness and suicide.
I decided to see whether or not there is such a correlation. The World Health Organization (WHO) provides the relevant data here. There have only ever been three studies attempting to measure rates of common mental illnesses internationally (1,2,3), and all three were run by the WHO. The WHO also collates national suicide rates (here) for most countries, although a few are missing. No-one seems to have published anything looking for a correlation between these two sets of numbers of before, or if they did, I’ve failed to find it.
So what’s the story? Take a look –
In short, there’s no correlation. The Pearson correlation (unweighted) r = 0.102, which is extremely low. As you can see, both mental illness and suicide rates vary greatly around the world, but there’s no relationship. Japan has the second highest suicide rate, but one of the lowest rates of mental illnesses. The USA has the highest rate of mental illness, but a fairly low suicide rate. Brazil has the second highest level of mental illness but the second lowest occurrence of suicide.
Some technical notes: Two of the three surveys, the ICPE (2000) and the WMHS (2004), sampled the whole population of each country. The other one, which was also the earliest, the PPGHC (1993), surveyed people attending family doctors. Because this is a slightly different approach, I used the ICPE and the WMHS for the plot above, although the results from the PPGHC are very similar (see below).
The ICPE sampled 7 countries and the WMHS sampled 14, but 4 countries were included in both surveys, so there’s a total of 17 countries. I’ve used the mean of the ICPE and the WMHS for those 4 countries where we have data from both, for the rest I’ve used whichever is available. For the suicide rates, the WHO gives data for various different years, so I’ve used 2002, or the nearest available year, since this is between 2000 and 2004. For two countries, Lebanon and Nigeria, the WHO do not report suicide rates. For China, rates of mental illness are given in both Beijing and Shanghai.
The studies used structured diagnostic interviews to try to measure the percentage of people suffering from mental illness in the 12 months before the interview. As I’ve said previously, this –
attempts to study a random sample of the population of a certain country. In order to establish whether each person is mentally ill or not, they use structured diagnostic interviews. These consists in asking the subject a fixed (“structured”) series of questions, and declaring them to have a certain mental disorder if they answer “Yes” to a given number of them.
You mentioned having periods that lasted several days or longer when you felt sad, empty, or depressed most of the day. During episodes of this sort, did you ever feel discouraged about how things were going in your life? (YES, NO, DON’T KNOW, REFUSED)
The rates from the population surveys (ICPE & WMHS) don’t correlate with suicide but they do correlate with the rates from the PPGHC survey of people attending family doctors. The association here is very strong, with a correlation r = 0.693. The only outlier is the US. This is despite the fact that a decade elapsed between the first survey (1993) and the other two (2000, 2004).
This is important because it shows that the mental illness surveys are measuring something about these countries, something which is stable over time. They’re not just producing random junk results. But whatever they’re measuring, it’s not related to suicide.
What does this mean? You leave a comment and tell me. But here’s my take. I’ve often expressed skepticism of population surveys and their (very high) estimates of mental illness, and of the dubious political conclusions certain people have tried to draw from them, but even so, I was surprised to find no correlation at all with suicide. I’d say that any meaningful measure of mental illness should correlate with suicide. These surveys, using the CIDI, don’t, so to me they’re not meaningful.
One thing to bear in mind about these numbers is that they deal with “common” mental illnesses like depression, substance abuse and anxiety. They leave out the most severe disorders such as schizophrenia. Also, people in psychiatric hospitals, in prison, and the homeless, will not have been included in the studies because they sample “households”. That could be why there’s no association with suicide, but if so then these surveys are missing a very important aspect of mental health.
The surveys do seem to measure something, but I don’t think it has much to do with mental illness. This is just a guess but I suspect they’re measuring willingness to talk about your emotional life to strangers. At least stereotypically, the Chinese and the Japanese are known as more reserved in this regard than Brazilians and Americans. So it’s no surprise that when you ask people a load of personal questions, the “rates of mental illness” seem to be lower in Japan than in America. This doesn’t mean Americans are really more ill, just more open.
I’ve been talking about surveys looking at differences between countries, but if these are flawed, then so are surveys looking at just one country. For example, many studies have looked at mental illness in the USA using similar methods to these. But can we trust these methods bearing in mind that if you ask the same questions in, say, Belgium you get less than half the estimated rate despite it having double the number of suicides? Taken to its logical conclusion, maybe we know little about the prevalence of “common mental illness” anywhere.
Sartorius N, Ustün TB, Costa e Silva JA, Goldberg D, Lecrubier Y, Ormel J, Von Korff M, & Wittchen HU (1993). An international study of psychological problems in primary care. Preliminary report from the World Health Organization Collaborative Project on ‘Psychological Problems in General Health Care’. Archives of general psychiatry, 50 (10), 819-24 PMID: 8215805
WHO (2000). Cross-national comparisons of the prevalences and correlates of mental disorders. WHO International Consortium in Psychiatric Epidemiology. Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 78 (4), 413-26 PMID: 10885160
Demyttenaere K, & et Al (2004). Prevalence, severity, and unmet need for treatment of mental disorders in the World Health Organization World Mental Health Surveys. JAMA, 291 (21), 2581-90 PMID: 15173149