KENSINGTON, Maryland — Suicide is the most common cause of death for teenage girls around the world, according to data from “Preventing Suicide,” a 2014 World Health Organization report.
The stigma around mental health contributes to a lack of awareness about this field of study within global health. We are less likely to see news updates about suicide rates in developing countries versus news updates about the spread of Ebola, for example.
Mental health is a global issue. There is a link between societal gender norms and feelings of inadequacy that can lead to depression and/or suicide. As a result of advancements in maternal health, suicide has replaced maternal mortality as the number one cause of death for young girls.
Globally, there are 11.73 suicides per 100,000 deaths in women aged 15 to 19 according to the WHO report. Stigma around suicide suggests that suicides are often under-reported, and thus the rate is probably higher. While the suicide rates for women are surprisingly high, it is also the case that there are more suicides committed by men than women in every country.
The goal is to understand motives for suicide and how it can be prevented for both men and women. When people suffer from mental illness, it is not only tragic in and of itself, but it will affect the ability of their families and communities to grow and prosper.
Gender norms and expectations exist in every society. Men and boys are often pressured to be financially successful, physically strong and fulfill roles of dominance. Women and girls, particularly after they have started puberty, can be pressured to stay at home, take care of others and defer to men. There are degrees and variations of these norms in different communities but they are pervasive around the globe.
Southeast Asia has the highest suicide rates, and this can be related to circumstances of life for both genders. Dr. Vikram Patel, co-founder of the Centre for Global Mental Health at the London School of Hygiene and Topical Medicine, believes that gender discrimination is at the root of these high suicide rates. A culture where forced marriage, early sexual experiences and violence between partners exist can lead to greater risk of suicide.
The Eastern Mediterranean has the second highest rates of suicide. Recently, an aid worker in Iraq reported up to 60 girls per month committing suicide as a direct result of abuse from the Islamic state. Women and children have been raped, sexually abused and physically tortured. Some women and children are ashamed about their abuse to the extent that they have decided to end their lives. Gender inequality in the culture has resulted in a situation where many women prefer death to life.
The developed world, in a different way, has also experienced cases of suicide stemming from gender injustice. Sexting related to the desire of boys to be accepted by their peers has come at the expense of objectification of young girls and has resulted in cases of suicide.
Striving to achieve perfection in the outline of a societal gender norm has led to some of the shocking suicide statistics revealed today. Work towards greater gender justice can contribute towards improved mental health in all countries.
– Iliana Lang