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Why France has such a high rate of suicides

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France's suicide rate is well above the European average. Photo: Stavros/flickr
16:49 CEST+02:00
Alarming figures released this week revealed that France has a much higher suicide rate than the European average, and double that of the UK and Spain. One expert in the field tells The Local the problem stems from France's history and economic model.

Every day in France an average of 21 men and eight women take their own lives and around 700 attempt it.

Stories about many of these suicides, some of them particularly shocking such as the despairing unemployed man who set himself on fire outside a job centre recently, end up in the French press on a regular basis.

And the latest figures published this week to coincide with World Suicide Prevention Day on Tuesday, revealed that France does have an acute problem with suicide, and charities are demanding the government gives the issue its full attention.

The figures from statistics agencies INSEE and Eurostat, published by the National Association for the Prevention of Suicide, show that the number of people who commit suicide in France is worryingly well above the European average.

Every year around 220,000 people in France attempt to take their own life and 10,000 of those die as a result. These alarming statistics mean that the number of suicides in France is more than double that of the UK and Spain.

Statistics for 2009 show the European Union average for the number of suicides per 100,000 inhabitants stood at 16.8 for men and 4.4 for women. However in France the number of suicides stood at 23.5 and 7.5 respectively.

So why does France suffer from a phenomenon that has, in the past at least, been more associated with Scandinavian countries?

Bodies dragged through the streets

Jean-Claude Delgenes, the director of Technologia, a company which works with highlighting safety concerns for workers, said that  historically, from before the revolution up to the present day, France has never shown a good example of how to deal with the issue.

“Until the revolution, people who took their own lives had their bodies mutilated, dragged through the streets and buried outside town, because it was considered a shameful act,” Delgenes told The Local.

“Another explanation is the historical influence of Catholicism in France. For the church, committing suicide was a big sin and it was a question that was dealt with from a moral point of view rather than a scientific one” he said, which prevented mental health problems from being treated seriously.

For Delgenes, France has also been left lagging behind its European neighbours when it comes to trying to prevent suicide.

“For a lot of issues, whether its suicide, asbestos or cancer, France was left behind when it came to creating programmes and policies geared towards prevention.

“In the UK the first plan to help prevent suicide was laid out in 1950, in France it was in the year 2000.  

Statistics show that the majority of people who kill themselves in France are aged between 35 and 64, and the rate increases with age.

Certain areas of rural France are also worse affected than others, with Brittany and Poitou-Charentes in the west and Nord Pas-de-Calais in the north of the country particularly affected.

The lack of access to services in rural areas of France is considered a reason for this trend.

As might be expected, a person's financial situation can aggravate the risk, with the suicide rate among job-seekers twice as high as among those with jobs.

In France people have a different relationship with their jobs

In recent months France has witnessed a number of shocking incidents in which several despairing unemployed people have set themselves on fire in front of job centres.

But it is not always those out of work in France who are propelled to take their own lives.

For Delgenes the traditional economic model in France, which has had many huge state-run companies where employees have worked for almost all their lives, can also help explain a high suicide rate, especially during the ongoing economic crisis.

“Work normally protects people from thinking about suicide as it's normally those whose are unemployed or living in poverty who are most at risk, but in recent years, in some cases work has actually been a cause to push people to take such extreme action.

In 2009, former state-run company France Telecom hit the news after a wave of staff suicides which saw 20 workers take their lives in 19 months.

“A lot of people, perhaps some who have worked for state-run companies, often find themselves lost with the pace of change. They cannot find their feet and are being asked to do different jobs which they may never have been trained for and cannot cope with.

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“In Anglo countries people don't have the same relationship with work. They change jobs more often and try new careers but in France people really identify themselves with a job, especially if they have trained for it and it's hard for them to change, especially in a time of high unemployment.”

National Observatory set up

Earlier this year a study was published which revealed that more and French people are living lonely lives. Odile de Laurens from the charity Fondation de France explained the reason was partly to do with modern life and the loss of traditional French family values.

Delgenes and numerous charities in the field have long been calling on French lawmakers to take action to deal with the issue.

On Tuesday, to mark World Suicide Prevention Day, the government finally heeded the calls of various charities and experts and set up a National Observatory on Suicide Risks.

The Observatory was launched by Health Minister Marisol Touraine and will have three main missions: to gather information on suicide from various sources, conduct additional studies that are deemed necessary and to propose action to prevent suicide.

For Delgenes and other charities who have worked in the field, the project is late, but it's better than never. 

“By opting for a proactive and consistent policy we can bring down the mortality rate, as has been the case with the number of road deaths,” he added.

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