Suicidal behaviour across the African continent: a review of the literature
BMC Public Health
Suicidal behaviour across the African continent: a review of the literature
Becky Mars 0
Stephanie Burrows 1 2
Heidi Hjelmeland 3
David Gunnell 0
0 School of Social and Community Medicine, University of Bristol , Oakfield House, Bristol BS8 2BN , United Kingdom
1 Department of Social and Preventive Medicine, University of Montréal , 7101 Avenue du Parc, H3N 1X7 Montréal, Québec , Canada
2 Research Centre of the University of Montréal Hospital Centre , 3850 St-Urbain, H2W 1 T7 Montréal, Québec , Canada
3 Department of Social Work and Health Science, Norwegian University of Science and Technology , NO-7491 Trondheim , Norway
Background: Suicide is a major cause of premature mortality worldwide, but data on its epidemiology in Africa, the world's second most populous continent, are limited. Results: Regional or national suicide incidence data were available for less than one third (16/53) of African countries containing approximately 60% of Africa's population; suicide attempt data were available for <20% of countries (7/53). Crude estimates suggest there are over 34,000 (inter-quartile range 13,141 to 63,757) suicides per year in Africa, with an overall incidence rate of 3.2 per 100,000 population. The recent Global Burden of Disease (GBD) estimate of 49,558 deaths is somewhat higher, but falls within the inter-quartile range of our estimate. Suicide rates in men are typically at least three times higher than in women. The most frequently used methods of suicide are hanging and pesticide poisoning. Reported risk factors are similar for suicide and suicide attempts and include interpersonal difficulties, mental and physical health problems, socioeconomic problems and drug and alcohol use/ abuse. Qualitative studies are needed to identify additional culturally relevant risk factors and to understand how risk factors may be connected to suicidal behaviour in different socio-cultural contexts. Conclusions: Our estimate is somewhat lower than GBD, but still clearly indicates suicidal behaviour is an important public health problem in Africa. More regional studies, in both urban and rural areas, are needed to more accurately estimate the burden of suicidal behaviour across the continent. Qualitative studies are required in addition to quantitative studies.
Suicide; Suicide attempts; Africa; Review; Incidence; Risk factor; Sex; Method
Each year, the World Health Organization (WHO)
estimates that almost a million people die from suicide
] highlighting suicide as a serious global public
health concern. The contribution of suicide to the global
burden of disease is predicted to increase over future
]. Data from the WHO mortality database indicate
that 85% of the world’s suicides occur in low and middle
income countries (LAMIC) [
], however, most of our
knowledge and understanding about suicidal behaviour is
based on information from high income countries, which
may not be applicable in different cultural contexts.
Africa is the world’s largest and second most populous
continent, with a population of over one billion people.
The continent is heterogeneous, comprising rural,
semirural and urban areas, a diverse range of religions, ethnic
groups and cultures and several regions affected by war,
political and economic instability. Despite high overall
mortality rates [
] suicide rates in Africa have been thought
to be very low [
]. However, little is actually known about
the incidence and patterns of suicide across the continent.
This information is of fundamental importance, both to
help inform local, regional and national policy, and to
provide a more accurate estimate of the magnitude of suicide
Suicide research in Africa is limited by a lack of
systematic data collection. With less than 10% of African
countries reporting mortality data to WHO, official
statistics are available for only 15% of the continent’s total
population. Much of the available published suicide data
are based primarily on small studies conducted in
different regions and populations. Moreover, reported suicide
mortality statistics are likely to underestimate the true
magnitude of the problem as religious and cultural
sanctions may lead to suicide being under-reported,
misclassified or deliberately concealed.
Even less is known about attempted suicide across the
African continent. It is estimated that for every suicide that
occurs worldwide there are up to 20 suicide attempts [
however reliable data are not available for most countries.
Data are often obtained from hospital records which
underestimate the number of cases, as many individuals are only
admitted to hospital if in a critical condition. Moreover, a
lack of access to medical facilities, particularly in rural areas
of Africa, means that many suicide attempters are unlikely
to present to hospitals. As with suicide, socio-cultural
factors also contribute to under-reporting.
This paper reviews the published literature on suicide
and suicide attempts in Africa to address these
knowledge gaps. Specifically, we aim to:
i. Describe the incidence of suicide and suicide
attempts across the African continent
ii. Describe common features across the studies,
including information related to age, sex and
iii. Identify key risk factors for suicide and suicide
A systematic search of PubMed, Web of Knowledge,
PsycINFO, African Index Medicus, Eastern Mediterranean
Index Medicus and African Journals OnLine was
conducted for papers published between January 1998 and
June 2013 that investigated fatal and non-fatal suicidal
behaviour in an African country (incidence, methods or risk
factors). Reference lists of relevant papers were examined
for additional eligible studies and two of the authors (SB,
HH), who have a longstanding interest in researching
suicide in Africa, identified additional published publications
from their personal collections of papers (Figure 1).
There has been much debate regarding the most
suitable terminology to describe suicidal behaviour, a
discussion of which is beyond the scope of this paper. In
line with a newly proposed nomenclature for suicidal
] we will use the term ‘suicide’ to refer to
suicidal acts that result in death and ‘suicide attempts’
to refer to suicidal actions that do not result in death.
Evidence of suicidal intent (whether explicit or implicit) is
central to this definition, however, intention is often
difficult to establish. It is possible that in some instances, acts
of deliberate self-harm involving no suicidal intent may
have been included.
The search was conducted using a combination of the
following search terms: Suicide [Mesh] or suicid? [tw] or
ideation [tw] or self harm? [tw] or self injur? [tw] and was
restricted to articles published in English, German or
French. The precise approach varied across the different
databases. Papers were manually reviewed to assess
eligibility for inclusion. In line with a public health perspective
on the overall burden of suicide and suicide attempts
across the continent, we focused on general population
samples of adults. Case reports and publications focused
on one sex or age group only (e.g. children and
adolescents), or groups considered at high risk for suicide (e.g.
patients attending psychiatric institutions, patients
suffering from HIV/AIDS) were not included.
For those countries with more than one eligible
publication (e.g. South Africa), the best available data are presented;
these were selected according to several criteria including
the recency of the publication, total population coverage
and level of detail available. National-level suicide mortality
data for the five countries that report data to WHO
(Mauritius, the Seychelles, South Africa, Zimbabwe and
Egypt) was obtained from the WHO mortality database [
Deriving estimates of suicide and suicide attempts
If not reported in the publication, estimates of the annual
incidence of suicide and suicide attempts per 100,000
population were derived wherever possible using the
Number of suicides=suicide attempts reported per year
Where population data were not reported, estimates
were obtained from on-line census data [
details are provided in the table footnotes. Estimates are
presented according to WHO mortality strata [
provide a way of describing the development of a country
based on child and adult mortality rates. The mortality
strata give a crude indication of the social and economic
health of a country and allow countries at a similar stage
of development to be grouped together. Thirty-eight
percent of African countries are in highest mortality strata
(Stratum E, high child and very-high adult mortality) and
58% in the second highest mortality strata (Stratum D,
high child and high adult mortality). There were no data
available for the 4% of countries in stratum B (Libyan Arab
Jamahiriya and Tunisia).
The median annual suicide incidence rate was calculated
within each stratum using the best available data for each
country (Table 1). This estimate was then extrapolated to
all countries within that stratum to give a rough estimate
of the total number of deaths occurring each year.
Total population ½for all countries within a given stratum
median incidence of suicide per 100; 000 ½within a given stratum
2012 population estimates for each country were
sourced from WHO [
]; total population for countries in
stratum D: 584,431,000 and stratum E: 469,722,000.
Values were also calculated for the lower and upper
quartile in order to illustrate the level of uncertainty within the
estimate. Estimates across strata were then combined to
provide a crude estimate of the total number of suicide
deaths occurring in Africa each year. The figures
presented are intended to provide only a rough estimate and
need to be interpreted with great caution given the lack of
suicide data for many countries, the variability in estimates
both within and across countries, the lack of national-level
suicide data and the likely under-reporting of suicide.
The recent Global Burden of Disease (GBD 2010) study
] has produced estimates of country-specific suicide
rates for Africa. We compared these estimates with those
derived from our review of the published literature. The
GBD study did not evaluate the incidence of attempted
suicide, risk factors for suicide nor commonly used
methods of suicide.
The best available data for the incidence of suicide in each
country are presented in Table 1. Data are available for 16
African countries which together account for
approximately 60% of the total population of Africa; although
frequently data are available for only a small proportion of
the population within a country (Figure 2). The median
incidence of suicide for the nine countries in the highest
mortality stratum (E) was 3.3 [inter-quartile range 2.3 to
Country and source
aaverage rate, range of annual rates 0.9-6.5 per 100,000; baverage rate, range of annual rates 0.6-0.8 per 100 000; caverage rate, range of annual rates 0.2-0.4 per
100,000; daverage rate, range of annual rates 3.3-11.7 per 100,000.
WHO: World Health Organization; data is presented for the most recent year available.
WHO mortality stratum D: high child mortality and high adult mortality; WHO mortality stratum E: high child mortality and very high adult mortality.
Five countries have additional publications available: South Africa [
], KwaZulu-Natal province, Transkei region, Pretoria and Bloemfontein city estimates range
from 10.9 to 32.5 (average rate) per 100,000; Egypt , Port Said city average rate 2.2 per 100,000; Senegal [
], Dakar region 0.7 per 100,000; Uganda [
Northern Uganda average rate 15.8 per 100,000; United Republic of Tanzania [
], Dar es Salaam 3.2 per 100,000.
South Africa and Egypt also have data available from mortality statistics they report to WHO [
Population estimated for the Dakar region, Senegal [
]. Source: National Agency of Statistics and Demography, Government of Senegal [
7.9] per 100,000 and for the seven countries in the second
highest stratum (D) was 3.2 [inter-quartile range 0.4 to
4.6] per 100,000. Based on these data, we crudely estimate
the annual number of suicides in Africa to be
approximately 34,000 [inter-quartile range 13,141 to 63,757]; this
is based on an estimated ~19,000 suicides in stratum D
countries and ~15,000 suicides in stratum E countries. The
overall annual incidence rate is estimated to be 3.2 per
100,000. This figure compares with an estimate of 49,558
suicides (median incidence rate 4.8 per 100,000) derived
from the recent GBD study 2010 [
]. A country-level
comparison of suicide incidence rates estimated in the GBD
study and the best available data from our literature review
is presented in Table 2. Literature-based estimates for
specific countries were most discrepant from the GBD
estimates for South Africa (higher), Zimbabwe (lower), Uganda
(lower), Malawi (lower) and Tanzania (lower).
Several countries have data available from multiple
publications including five for South Africa (mean annual
estimates range from 10.9 to 32.5 per 100,000 population)
] and two for Egypt (mean annual estimates 0.7
and 2.2 per 100,000 population) [
], Senegal (mean
annual estimates 0.7 and 3.7 per 100,000 population)
], Uganda (mean annual estimates 1.0 and 15.8 per
100,000 population) [
] and the United Republic of
Tanzania (mean annual estimates 2.3 and 3.2 per 100,000
]. In addition, South Africa and Egypt
have WHO mortality data available [
], and for both
countries WHO rates are considerably lower than in the
publication (South Africa 0.9 vs. 17.2 per 100,000 [
Egypt 0.1 vs. 0.7 [
]). Additional studies from South
] and Egypt  report similarly high rates,
indicating that WHO data are likely to be underestimated.
Secular trends Data on secular trends in suicides are
unavailable for many African countries. Six countries
report suicide incidence data for five or more time points,
including three countries from the WHO mortality database
(Mauritius, Seychelles and Egypt). The trend for Mauritius
(12 time points; 1955–2008) shows an initial decline in
suicide rates followed by a substantial increase; rates increased
from 1.7 in 1970 to 14.1 in 1990, after which rates have been
steadily declining. Data from the Seychelles (5 time points;
1985–2008) show initially fluctuating rates which have been
declining since 1998. Suicide incidence rates in Egypt appear
to be relatively stable over time (5 time points; 1974–2009).
Trend data from peer reviewed publications are available
for four countries. Similar to the findings from WHO
statistics, data for Egypt show little variability in rates over
]. Trends in Cameroon (annual suicide incidence
rates over 10 years;1999 to 2008 [
]) show a general increase
in rates over time, with two notable decreases between
2001–2003 and 2006–2007. Rates increased substantially
between 2003 and 2006 from ~1.5 to ~6.5 per 100,000
population. Rates in Ethiopia (annual suicide incidence rates
reported over the 15 year period 1981/2 to 1995/6 [
substantially across time. Trend data are available for South
Africa from multiple publications; one study shows
substantial fluctuations in rates over time (2000–2007) [
minor fluctuations (2002–2008) [
], and one an initial
decline in suicide rates followed by an increase (1996–2000)
]. There is also some evidence to suggest that secular
trends may be influenced by demographic factors such as age
and race [
Sensitivity analyses There is wide variability across
countries regarding the time period over which suicide
data were collected (range 1975–2009). In order to
examine the impact of this on our estimates, sensitivity analyses
were conducted excluding those countries where the
majority of the data were collected prior to 2000 (Nigeria,
Ethiopia, Senegal, Uganda and Zimbabwe). The median
estimates for each stratum remained largely unchanged
(stratum D: 3.2 and stratum E: 3.0).
We also conducted sensitivity analyses to examine the
extent to which our estimate of the annual number of
suicides in Africa differs when calculated using the mean
as opposed to the median suicide incidence rate for each
strata. When using the mean, the estimated number of
suicide deaths was 42,199 (approximately 20% higher
than our estimate of 34,000), but remained below the
GBD estimate of 49,558.
ii. Suicide attempts
Data are available on suicide attempts for 11 countries,
seven of which report rates per 100,000 (Table 3). Incidence
rates vary widely from 0.1 per 100,000 in Ghana [
] to 100
per 100,000 in Namibia [
]. The remaining four studies
report lifetime prevalence estimates for suicide attempts
collected primarily from surveys. Estimates vary from 0.7% in
] to 6.0% in Liberia [
]. Two countries have
data available from more than one publication (South
Africa estimates range from 2.9%-3.4% [
] and Ethiopia
estimates range from 0.9%-3.2% [
]). A summary of the
best available data (range, median and mean) for both
suicide and suicide attempts according to WHO mortality
strata is presented in Table 4.
Sex and age differences
Data on sex differences in the incidence of suicide are
available for 13 countries (Table 1). All studies reported
higher rates in males with most reporting a male to female
ratio of at least 3:1.
Evidence for sex differences in suicide attempts is less
clear. Data are available for 11 countries (Table 3), of
which five studies report a clear female predominance
], three studies find a clear male
] and three studies report similar rates
for males and females [
Age-specific rates were available from WHO for five
]. The lowest rates were generally found in those
under the age of 25 with few suicides reported in children
under 15 years (≤0.5 per 100,000). There was little
variability in age-specific rates for Egypt (0.0-0.2 per 100,000).
Suicide rates in the Seychelles increased with age until
55 years, after which there were no reported suicides. In
Mauritius and Zimbabwe, rates were highest amongst
older adults (aged 55+). Rates in South Africa were highest
in those 15–54 and those over 75.
Only one publication reported age-specific rates of
suicide per 100,000. In the United Republic of Tanzania [
rates were highest amongst those aged 45–59 years (5.7 per
100,000) followed by those aged 30–44 years (4.0 per
100,000). Thirteen publications from eight countries reported
either the mean or median age at suicide or the proportion
within specific age bands [
however these estimates should be interpreted with great
caution as they are influenced by the age distribution of
the general population. Mortality records are also often
For suicide attempts, age information was reported in
eleven publications from seven countries [
]. These studies consistently showed highest
rates amongst young adults (aged 15–30 years).
Nineteen publications from ten countries reported methods
used for suicide [
The best available data for each country are presented in
Table 5. The predominant methods for suicide were
hanging and poisoning, although rates varied
considerably across studies (hanging 8% - 70%; poisoning 8%
83%). Firearms were also a common method in some
countries (range 0% - 32%). Further details about the
poisonous toxins used were reported in eight countries. In
Cameroon, Egypt, Malawi, Nigeria and Uganda most
poisoning deaths were attributable to pesticides (typically
organophosphorous, organochlorine and rodenticides) with
low rates of medication overdose [
comparison, studies from Senegal and the United Republic of
Tanzania report higher rates of medicine overdose [
whilst similar rates of medicine overdose and pesticide
poisoning were found in South Africa .
Nine publications from seven countries reported methods
used for suicide attempts [
predominant method was poisoning which was reported in
] to 91% [
] of attempts. Medicine overdose
was more common than pesticide poisoning in Namibia,
South Africa, Zimbabwe and the United Republic of
], whereas pesticides were
marginally more common in Uganda [
]. The most frequently
used medications were antidepressants, antimalarials
and psychotropic medications. Cutting was a common
method in two studies [
] and hanging in three
Results stratified by sex showed some sex differences in
]. For both
suicides and suicide attempts females generally had higher
rates of poisoning than males, whereas males were more
likely than females to use violent methods such as hanging
Nine publications from four countries reported risk
factors for suicide [
collected via psychological autopsies with relatives. Mental
health problems were reported to play a role in up to 11%
of suicides [
]. Physical health problems were also
], for example in the United Republic
of Tanzania, the rate of HIV was double amongst those
who died by suicide when compared to the national
0.1 per 100,000a
Sampled from whole country [n = 1,666]
Lifetime prevalence: 6.0%
Casablanca, random sample [n = 800]
Lifetime prevalence: 2.1%
Sampled from 5 of the 6
geopolitical regions [n = 6752]
Feb 2002-May 2003 Lifetime prevalence: 0.7%
Addis Ababa (hospital presentations)
10.7 per 100,000
Rehoboth (hospital presentations)
100.0 per 100,000
Sampled from whole country [n = 4,351] Jan 2002-June 2004 Lifetime prevalence: 2.9%
Kampala (hospital presentations)
Jan 2002-Oct 2002
10.1 per 100,000
Dar es Salaam (hospital presentations)
Jan 1991-June 1993
5.2 per 100,000
Harare (hospital presentations)
Jul 1997-Dec 1997
49.9 per 100,000
aaverage rate, range of annual suicide attempts 0.03 to 0.08 per 100,000; baverage rate, range of annual suicide attempts 7.4 to 163.0 per 100,000; csex rates for
suicide attempts include one suicide; dIncidence figures do not include those admitted to the intensive care unit.
WHO: World Health Organization.
WHO mortality stratum D: high child mortality and high adult mortality; WHO mortality stratum E: high child mortality and very high adult mortality.
Two countries have additional publications available: South Africa [
], Durban lifetime suicide attempt rate 3.4%; Ethiopia [
], Addis Ababa and Butajira
lifetime suicide attempt rates 0.9% and 3.2%.
Population estimated for Harare, Zimbabwe [
] based on data from the 1992 and 2002 Zimbabwe census. Source: Central Statistical Office [
prevalence for sexually active adults . Alcohol and/
or drug use was a prominent risk factor [
], with one study reporting that alcohol was
involved either directly or indirectly (via the drinking
behaviour of significant others) in as many as 80% of
suicides . Studies in South Africa also found that
approximately 40% of individuals who died by suicide tested
positive for alcohol on blood assays [
Interpersonal and social difficulties including family conflict,
friendship or relationship problems and unwanted
], and socioeconomic factors
] also play an important role.
The only case control study to investigate precipitating
factors for suicide [
] found higher levels of
psychological distress amongst individuals who died by suicide
relative to road traffic collision victims, however, no
differences were found in mental health problems,
physical health problems, family conflict or drug/alcohol
ii. Suicide attempts
Ten publications from seven countries reported risk
factors for attempted suicide [
most often via population surveys or interviews with
patients/relatives. As for suicide, commonly identified risk
factors included interpersonal and social difficulties
], physical illness [
socioeconomic factors [
]. Mental health
problems were a prominent risk factor [
with one study finding a four-fold increase in odds of
suicide attempt amongst those with psychiatric disorder
. The risk of suicide attempt was considerably higher
WHO: World Health Organization.
WHO mortality stratum D: high child mortality and high adult mortality; stratum E: high child mortality and very high adult mortality.
No data were available for the 4% of African countries in stratum B.
Number of annual deaths = population of countries in stratum/100,000 X median incidence rate for stratum.
Estimated number of annual deaths in stratum D countries = 584,431,000/100,000 X 3.2 = 18,702.
Estimated number of annual deaths in stratum E countries = 469,722,000/100,000 X 3.3 = 15,501.
Estimated number of annual deaths in Africa: 34,203.
amongst those with multiple disorders [
drug use was also reported as a risk factor [
with men more likely to report substance use than women
]. Several other risk factors were identified including
elevated numbers of negative life events, feelings of guilt or
shame, sexual problems, feelings of loneliness, poor
selfesteem, childhood abuse/trauma, parent mental health
problems and family suicidal behaviour [
To understand how risk factors may be connected to
suicidal behaviour, qualitative studies are needed which
are able to take more of the complexity of suicidal
behaviour and the socio-cultural context into consideration
]. To our knowledge, only two qualitative studies
on suicidal behaviour have been conducted in Africa to
date; one on suicide and one on attempted suicide.
In post-conflict Northern Uganda, Kizza et al. [
conducted a qualitative psychological autopsy study among
men and women in Internally Displaced Peoples’ camps. In
this context, suicide in both sexes was found to be
connected to men’s “loss of masculinity”. In order to
understand what this means it is necessary to understand how
the gender roles in this community had been before the
war and how the war had changed these roles and
responsibilities in a way that contributed to suicide for both men
and women, albeit in very different ways [
Quantitative studies on suicidal behaviour have
commonly found religion/religiosity to be a protective factor.
However, in a qualitative interview study with suicide
attempters in Ghana, Akotia et al. [
] found that that was
not necessarily the case. For instance, some individuals
had attempted suicide because they were disappointed
with God; they had fulfilled their religious obligations and
did therefore not understand why God still allowed
suffering in their lives.
Knowledge about suicide in Africa is limited with less
than 10% of countries reporting mortality data to WHO.
This investigation aimed to increase our understanding
of the prevalence, patterns and risk factors for suicide
and attempted suicide across the continent by reviewing
and consolidating the available literature.
Suicide incidence rates have been reported in only 16
countries which together account for approximately 60%
of the total population of Africa. However, national-level
suicide data are lacking for most of these countries. There
was considerable variation in the rates reported, both
within and across countries. This could reflect the
unreliability of the data, or alternatively could highlight the
importance of the cultural context. Suicide rates in urban
South Africa are reported to be much higher than in the
other countries [
], perhaps due to the better quality and
reliability of mortality data available.
Based on the limited available data, we crudely estimated
the annual number of suicides in Africa to be
approximately 34,000 [inter-quartile range 13,141 to 63,757]. This
figure was calculated from median incidence rates
[according to mortality strata] and is intended to provide only an
approximation to the incidence of suicide in Africa. This
estimate is somewhat lower than the recent GBD 2010
estimate of 49,558 deaths [
], however our figure is based only
on available published data and does not take into account
the geographical, sex or age structure of countries. It is not
possible to judge which estimate is more accurate as each is
based on different sources and assumptions. Any current
estimates of suicide in Africa need to be interpreted with great
caution given the absence of data for many countries, the
variability of estimates and the lack of national-level statistics.
Moreover, the huge cultural and religious diversity found
both within and across African countries together with
geographic (i.e. rural/urban), economic and political differences
mean results based on data from one population or region
are unlikely to be generalisable to another. Additional
research is urgently needed, particularly in rural and
economically deprived regions where suicide data are largely absent.
Studies from India, China and Sri Lanka indicate that rural
areas have exceptionally high rates of suicide [
likely due to easy access to pesticides combined with poor
access to medical facilities and ineffective treatments.
The lifetime prevalence of suicide attempts also varied
across studies, with a median estimate of 2%-3% [range
0.7-6.0%]. This compares with 0.4-4.2% found in the
WHO SUPRE-MISS community survey of LAMICs [
and 2.7% from the 17 countries in the World Mental
Health Surveys [
]. Worldwide it is estimated that there
are up to 20 suicide attempts for every suicide death [
but across much of the African continent, the ratio of
deaths to attempts appears to be much lower than this.
Whilst this ratio does vary globally by country and suicide
method, it could indicate that the true incidence of suicide
in Africa is underestimated. In many African countries,
suicidal behaviour carries negative religious and cultural
sanctions and therefore may be under-reported, hidden or
deliberately misclassified. In addition, the uncertainty in
establishing suicidal intent may lead some suicidal acts to
be misclassified as unintentional. There is some evidence
from South Africa to suggest that suicide deaths by
poisoning, jumping and railways are more likely to be
misclassified than those by firearms or hanging [
Worldwide, three to four more men die by suicide than
women. The ratio is much lower in Asian countries [
and in China, more women die from suicide than men,
particularly in rural areas [
]. Available evidence from
Africa suggests that sex differences in suicide are broadly
consistent with international trends, with all countries
reporting a male predominance, typically at a ratio of 3.0:1
or higher. However, most studies have been conducted in
urban areas and it is not clear whether this pattern would
also be seen in rural areas of Africa. The sex discrepancy
identified in this review may in part be explained by a
propensity for men to use more lethal methods such as hanging
and firearms, whereas the most common method used by
women was poisoning.
Clear conclusions cannot be made regarding sex
differences in attempted suicide in Africa as some studies
reported a male predominance, some a female predominance,
and others no clear sex differences. These findings contrast
with international trends where suicide attempts tend to be
2–3 times higher in women than in men [
Knowledge of the most prominent methods used for
suicide in Africa is vital for the development of prevention
strategies, as restricting access can be an effective way of reducing
suicide rates [
]. According to WHO, pesticide
poisoning is now the most common method of suicide worldwide
] and is frequently reported in China, Sri Lanka and India,
particularly in rural areas [
]. Findings from this review
suggest that pesticide poisoning is also a prominent method in
Africa. Moreover, the proportion of suicidal acts involving
pesticides is likely to be underestimated as data are largely
absent in rural areas where pesticides are easily accessible
and likely to be a commonly used suicide method. Evidence
from Sri Lanka [
] suggests that reducing access to
pesticides by banning those that are most toxic to humans is an
effective means of reducing suicide rates. Improved medical
management for pesticide poisoning is also urgently needed
in order to reduce the lethality of this method. Poisoning
with over-the-counter medications was also a common
method used in both suicide and suicide attempts. Legislation
regarding quantities of over-the counter medication may help
to reduce overdose rates .
Given their high lethality, it is not surprising that
rates of hanging and firearms were higher for suicide
than for suicide attempts. The use of firearms as a method
for suicide varied considerably across studies [range 0-32%],
probably reflecting differences in the availability of this
method. Prevention approaches should focus on restricting
access to firearms and promoting safer storage [
A greater understanding of the antecedents to suicide is
important in order to identify high-risk groups and to
develop effective prevention strategies. Suicide is
multifactorial, involving a complex interplay of biological,
social, cultural and psychological factors. Information about
suicide risk factors in Africa is typically obtained
retrospectively, either from medical records which are often
incomplete, or from relatives’ reports which may be biased.
Case control and cohort studies are required to better
characterise risk factors for suicidal behaviour in Africa.
For example, several studies reported high rates of
unemployment amongst those who had died by suicide;
however, as rates of unemployment are generally high within
the population, the absence of a suitable comparison group
means that these data are not informative.
Risk factors for suicide and suicide attempts identified in
this review include physical health problems, psychiatric
disorder or symptoms, drug and alcohol use/abuse,
interpersonal and social difficulties and socioeconomic
problems. The type of risk factors that are identified and their
relative importance is likely to vary across different regions
and population groups. The importance of taking into
consideration the socio-cultural context has been highlighted
by qualitative studies [
]. Such studies are crucial in
order to build locally relevant suicide theory and to
understand how, when, where and for whom risk factors may be
connected to suicidal behaviour [
Knowledge about suicide and suicide attempts in Africa
is important, not only for African policy but also to
improve the precision of global estimates of the magnitude
of suicide. Findings from this review suggest that suicide
is an important public health issue in Africa, with
reported figures highly likely to underestimate the true
incidence. Systematic data collection is urgently required
in order to compile reliable suicide mortality and
morbidity statistics across the continent. There is also a need
for more qualitative studies, which are able to take into
account the socio-cultural context.
WHO: World Health Organization; LAMIC: Low and middle income countries;
GBD study: Global Burden of Disease study.
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
DG and BM contributed towards the conception of the study. BM helped to
review and consolidate the literature, searched reference lists of eligible
articles, assisted with the interpretation of the data and drafted the
manuscript. SB, HH and DG assisted with the acquisition of relevant articles/
data, participated in the interpretation of the data, assisted with the drafting
of the manuscript and critically appraised the manuscript for important
intellectual content. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.
We are grateful to Alexandra Fleischmann, Henrik Heitmann and Amrita
Parekh at the World Health Organization for literature searching and paper
retrieval and to the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010 and all its
B.M is funded by a grant from the Medical Research Council (grant reference
S.B is a researcher at the Research Centre of the University of Montréal
Hospital Centre and assistant professor at the University of Montréal.
H.H is Professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
D.G is a National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Senior Investigator.
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