What has happened to the suicide rate in Europe in the past 20 years?

  • A. It decreased by a third
  • B. It stayed about the same
  • C. It increased by a third

Correct answer

The rate of suicides in Europe has dropped from 21.2 per 100,000 people in 1997 to 15.5 per 100,000 people in 2017—a decrease of more than a third. Data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation show that suicide rates in Europe peaked in 1994 (after the fall of the Soviet Union) and that there has been a near continuous decline since then. The main reason the rate has improved is the economic development and stabilization in former Soviet countries, as well as the introduction of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)—a form of antidepressant — in the 90s.

Data source

The evidence for the correct answer comes from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation: https://gapm.io/xihme

When fewer people commit suicide, nobody notices

A massive 90% of our respondents got this question wrong, with the majority opting for the most negative option. Thankfully, our respondents’ answers are not a reflection of reality, as the rate of suicides in Europe has actually been decreasing for many years! The chimps were much more positive than our human respondents, and consequently scored a higher proportion of correct answers.

Why do people pick the wrong answer?

Because they think that things are getting worse! It’s not a surprise that most people chose the most negative option… or that hardly anybody got this question right. Many of us fall into the trap of believing that things are getting worse, so a rise in suicide rates would be the only logical conclusion.

But everything isn’t getting worse. In fact, most things are getting better. And that includes a significant fall in the rate of suicides in Europe over the last 25 years. Mental health and suicides have received a lot of attention in the media, which almost always highlights the exceptions. After all, when was the last time you heard about somebody NOT committing suicide? There has also been a lot of coverage of the increasing rate of suicides in the United States — which is true, but still an exception to the situation globally.

Now of course, suicide is something that needs attention, and even though it has become more uncommon in most European countries in the past 20 years, it is still far too common for us to relax. It has tragic consequences for all those around, friends and family, and when attention is given it needs to be done with compassion and knowledge about the subject.

However, if we are unaware of that suicide is actually becoming less common, we could easily come to believe that the measures being taken to prevent suicide don’t work — worse, that they don’t matter. Clearly, this is not true. We can and must continue suicide-preventive work. It makes a difference. It saves lives.

How many people in Europe suffer from depression?

  • A. 5%
  • B. 25%
  • C. 45%

Correct answer

In 2015, 44.3 million people—5.1% of the total population—suffered from depression in Europe, according to the World Health Organization. Option B (25%) would better describe the lifetime risk of depression, rather than the number of people suffering from depression at a specific point in time. Thinking that 45% of the population suffer from depression is just crazy… that would be like every second person around you!

Another data source, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) show that 4.2% of people in Europe suffered from depression in 2017, followed by the Western Pacific region (3.9%), the Americas (3.8%), the Eastern Mediterranean region (3.5%), South-East Asia (3.3%), and Africa (2.9%). No matter which data source we use, Europe is the most highly affected region.

Data source

The evidence for the correct answer comes from the World Health Organization: https://gapm.io/xwhom, https://gapm.io/xwhomh2.

Europeans don’t realize how unusual depression is

The results for this question were terrible, just like almost all the others from this study. Only 15% of the people we surveyed answered this question correctly. That’s worse than the chimps yet again, who (as usual) managed 33% correct answers. German respondents were the “least bad” this time with 19% correct, followed by France with 16%, and the United Kingdom with measly 12%.

Why do people pick the wrong answer?

Because they think that this is a BIG problem! Mental health issues are often covered by the media as well as a variety of non-governmental organizations. Unfortunately, in many cases the phrases “depression” and “mental health” are used interchangeably, leading many people to confuse the two.

And, as explained above, there’s a big difference between the proportion of people suffering from depression within a single year compared to “at some point in their lives”.

Ultimately, it’s true that depression and other mental health disorders are a huge problem, as well as the incapacity of some of our health systems to meet the needs of patients who suffer from them. But yet again, it just isn’t as big a problem as we think it is. It is possible for us to address this without being overwhelmed.