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.