Suicide is the second most common cause of death for young people in India, a country with one of the highest suicide rates in the world, research published today showed.
The first ever national survey of deaths in India found that some 56 all women who took their own lives in 2010 and 40 per cent of men were aged between 15 and 29.
Almost as many young women in India die from suicide as die from complications in pregnancy and childbirth, scientists at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine found. In the same age bracket, the leading cause of death for men is transport accidents.
The study found that suicide claims twice as many young lives in India as HIV and AIDS.
The most common form of suicide death was poisoning, mainly by swallowing pesticides. Hanging was the second most common cause for men and women, and burns accounted for about a sixth of suicides by women.
Vikram Patel, a professor of international mental health who led the study, said despite this high death toll, suicide gets far less public attention in India than maternal deaths or AIDS.
He said he hoped the research would help convince authorities to improve mental health care in a country where many have no access to suicide prevention programs or care for mental illnesses such as depression.
"India is currently in the process of revising the National Mental Health Program and we hope that the study findings will provide evidence to improve mental health care in India," he said.
The study, published in The Lancet medical journal, underscored some differences with trends observed in other parts of the world.
In contrast to patterns usually seen in wealthier countries, the highest suicide rates in India are among young, wealthy and highly educated people. Young Indian women also more likely to kill themselves than men, also a contrast with richer nations where suicide rates are highest among young men.
According to the study, suicide rates are much higher in rural parts of India, and nearly 10 times as high in the more wealthy southern states than in the poorer north.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates the annual global suicide rate is about 16 per 10,000 people, or almost 1 million people every year. This includes about 200,000 in China, 190,000 in India and around 140,000 in high-income countries, and represents a 45 per cent increase in the last 45 years.
It says the main risk factors are mental illness - primarily depression - and alcohol abuse, as well as violence, loss, abuse and pressures from cultural and social backgrounds.
The study used data from the India's Registrar General and found that about 3 percent of deaths of people aged over 15 are due to suicide.
Using projections from the United Nations, the researchers estimated there were around 187,000 suicides in 2010.
Patel said he was intrigued to find many parallels with China when analysing the Indian data.
"We recorded a reduced risk of suicide in women who were widowed, divorced or separated, compared with married women and men," he said.
This finding was consistent with trends in China, Patel said, but was in contrast to higher risks of suicide in formerly married women and men in the United States.