Patterns and trends in suicide mortality for the period 1955-89 for 57 countries (28 from Europe, the former Soviet Union, Canada, the United States, 14 Latin American countries, 8 from Asia and 2 from Africa, Australia and Oceania) were analyzed on the basis of official death certification data included in the World Health Organization mortality database. Over the most recent calendar quinquennium (1985-1989), Hungary had the highest rate for men (52.1 per 100,000, all ages, world standard), followed by Sri Lanka (49.6), Finland (37.2) and a number of central European countries. North American, Japan, Australia and New Zealand and several European countries had intermediate suicide rates (between 15 and 25 per 100,000), whereas overall mortality from suicide was low in the United Kingdom, southern Europe, Latin America and reporting countries and areas from Africa and Asia, except Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong. The pattern for women was similar, although the absolute values were considerably lower. The highest values were in Sri Lanka (19.0 per 100,000), followed by Hungary (17.6) and several other central European countries, with rates between 9 and 15 per 100,000. Female suicide rates were comparatively elevated in Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Cuba. With respect to trends over time, the figures were relatively favourable in less developed areas of the world, including Latin America and several countries from Asia, with the major exception of Sri Lanka. Of concern are, in contrast, the upward trends, particularly for elderly men in Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand and, mostly, the substantial rises over most recent decades of suicide rates in young cohorts of males in Japan and several European countries, Australia and New Zealand. These trends were often in contrast with more favourable patterns in women, and can be discussed in terms of ethnic, cultural and socioeconomic factors, aspects of psychiatric care or availability of instruments and methods of suicide.