Ed­i­to­rial

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Un­likely as it seems given the fright­en­ing forces buf­fet­ing our world, we’re en­ter­ing 2019 buoyed by some sur­pris­ingly good news. Glob­ally, the rate of suc­cess­ful ter­ror at­tacks is down, as is the sui­cide rate. The Global Ter­ror­ism In­dex (GTI), pub­lished an­nu­ally by the In­sti­tute for Eco­nomics and Peace (IEP), has just re­ported a third con­sec­u­tive year of a fall­ing death rate from ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­ity. And a re­port by the Economist found sui­cide deaths on the wane, thanks to more so­cial free­dom in coun­tries such as China and In­dia, im­proved pal­lia­tive care and greater in­sight into sui­cide pre­ven­tion.

Un­hap­pily, there re­mains an im­por­tant ex­cep­tion. Nei­ther of th­ese sta­tis­tics ap­plies to the US. Acts of ter­ror, in large mea­sure by Amer­i­can cit­i­zens, are on the rise. And the sui­cide rate, par­tic­u­larly for mid­dle-aged males, con­tin­ues to rise. Lest any­one blame Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­dency, he’s more a symp­tom – even an at­tempt at self-med­i­ca­tion – than the cause. The seeds of Amer­i­cans’ dis­lo­ca­tion and de­s­pair were sown long ago. But the rea­sons the US is an out­lier help re­in­force the lessons learnt by most other coun­tries that are now keep­ing both death tolls down.

The big­gest sin­gle con­trib­u­tor to the de­cline in ter­ror­ist deaths is the weak­en­ing of the Is­lamic State’s (Isis) in­sur­gen­cies. Sig­nif­i­cant mil­i­tary de­feats have made it less at­trac­tive to re­cruits and less ef­fec­tive.

Tar­get coun­tries’ in­tel­li­gence sys­tems are also bet­ter at root­ing out ter­ror at the source. IEP founder Steve Kil­le­lea says that although Euro­pean deaths from ter­ror­ism have de­creased, the num­ber of ter­ror­ist in­ci­dents in­creased. “This high­lights that Isis is los­ing its abil­ity to plan and co-or­di­nate larger-scale ter­ror­ist at­tacks, as a re­sult of less­ened ca­pa­bil­i­ties and in­creased coun­tert­er­ror­ism mea­sures.”

Those who rail against in­ter-coun­try se­cu­rity co-op­er­a­tion, such as the Five Eyes al­liance of the UK, US, Aus­tralia, Canada and New Zealand, should con­cede the point: they ap­pear to be keep­ing na­tions safer from ter­ror. To­tal deaths fell by 27%, with 94 coun­tries less ter­ror-hit, but there were 46 na­tions where ter­ror wors­ened in 2017. De­spite the high­est level of im­prove­ment since 2004, the GTI warns ter­ror­ism re­mains wide­spread and Iraq, Afghanistan, Nige­ria, Syria and Pak­istan sit atop the list of coun­ties af­fected by ex­trem­ist ac­tiv­ity.

Although Pres­i­dent Trump is re­new­ing pres­sure for a walled south­ern bor­der, it’s not mi­grants who pose the main US ter­ror threat. The GTI char­ac­terises the US’s prob­lem as in­ter­nal far-right ter­ror­ism. And it has much the same driv­ers as for its sui­cide rate.

The Economist re­ports the coun­try’s 18% sui­cide in­crease since 2000 largely com­prises white, mid­dle-aged, poorly ed­u­cated men in ar­eas that have suf­fered eco­nom­i­cally. Those who feel left be­hind, dis­re­garded and dis­re­spected ei­ther get sad and kill them­selves or get an­gry and kill oth­ers.

The global fi­nan­cial cri­sis drove up sui­cide num­bers – but so, too, did os­ten­si­bly pos­i­tive events such as the break-up of the Soviet Union. Great change can bring loss of sta­tus and cer­tainty. In times when the pre­vail­ing Soviet ad­min­is­tra­tion re­stricted al­co­hol dis­tri­bu­tion, the sui­cide rate de­clined. Longer term, the only reli­able rem­edy seems to be so­cial sta­bil­ity – and gen­uine free­dom. The lat­ter has been the key to a sui­cide de­cline in China and In­dia, where young women, tra­di­tion­ally trapped in mar­riages, have grad­u­ally ac­quired more free­dom. The drift from ru­ral to ur­ban set­tle­ment has weak­ened the pa­tri­ar­chal grip of hus­bands and in-laws. Co­erced mar­riages are in de­cline.

In Bri­tain, a marked re­cent drop in sui­cide among the el­derly has been at­trib­uted to im­prove­ment in treat­ment of chronic pain and pal­lia­tive care.

We’re also learn­ing more about sui­cide trig­gers – chiefly, im­pul­siv­ity meet­ing op­por­tu­nity. In the four months af­ter co­me­dian Robin Wil­liams killed him­self in 2014, US re­searchers found 1800 oth­ers used ex­actly the same method. Stud­ies con­sis­tently show a high im­pul­siv­ity fac­tor in sui­cides, but it’s the “how to” that can make the dif­fer­ence. Of the 515 peo­ple who sur­vived jumps from San Fran­cisco’s Golden Gate Bridge from 1937 to 1971, 94% were still alive in 1978 or had died of nat­u­ral causes. Sui­cide is of­ten a fleet­ing im­pulse and even mod­est im­ped­i­ments can save lives: emet­ics in seda­tive drugs, bar­ri­ers on bridges, lim­its on over-doseable painkillers, less re­portage of “how to” de­tails and stricter con­trol of guns and poi­sons.

Sadly, New Zealand’s sui­cide rate con­tin­ues to climb. Māori men, young adults and peo­ple aged 45-49 are the most likely to suc­cumb. Let’s hope lessons from abroad, along with promised im­prove­ments to our men­tal-health as­sis­tance, es­pe­cially drug and al­co­hol ser­vices, will help us re­verse this heart-break­ing trend.

Here’s some sur­pris­ingly good news: Glob­ally, the rate of suc­cess­ful ter­ror at­tacks is down, as is the sui­cide rate.

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