Background: Reliable suicide statistics are a prerequisite for suicide monitoring and prevention. The aim of this study was to assess the reliability of suicide statistics through a systematic review of the international literature.
Methods: We searched for relevant publications in EMBASE, Ovid Medline, PubMed, PsycINFO and the Cochrane Library up to October 2010. In addition, we screened related studies and reference lists of identified studies. We included studies published in English, German, French, Spanish, Norwegian, Swedish and Danish that assessed the reliability of suicide statistics. We excluded case reports, editorials, letters, comments, abstracts and statistical analyses. All three authors independently screened the abstracts, and then the relevant full-text articles. Disagreements were resolved through consensus.
Results: The primary search yielded 127 potential studies, of which 31 studies met the inclusion criteria and were included in the final review. The included studies were published between 1963 and 2009. Twenty were from Europe, seven from North America, two from Asia and two from Oceania. The manner of death had been re-evaluated in 23 studies (40-3,993 cases), and there were six registry studies (195-17,412 cases) and two combined registry and re-evaluation studies. The study conclusions varied, from findings of fairly reliable to poor suicide statistics. Thirteen studies reported fairly reliable suicide statistics or under-reporting of 0-10%. Of the 31 studies during the 46-year period, 52% found more than 10% under-reporting, and 39% found more than 30% under-reporting or poor suicide statistics. Eleven studies reassessed a nationwide representative sample, although these samples were limited to suicide within subgroups. Only two studies compared data from two countries.
Conclusions: The main finding was that there is a lack of systematic assessment of the reliability of suicide statistics. Few studies have been done, and few countries have been covered. The findings support the general under-reporting of suicide. In particular, nationwide studies and comparisons between countries are lacking.