One person dies by suicide every 40 seconds around the world, the World Health Organization says in a new report that finds few countries have specific policies focused on preventing suicide.

In its first-ever global report on suicide prevention, the World Health Organization says it’s a serious public health issue that could be alleviated if more countries developed national suicide prevention plans.

Dr. Shekhar Saxena, WHO's director of mental health and substance abuse, notes that only 28 countries currently have national strategies.

"We believe that every country, whether their suicide rates are high or low, should still be thinking about it and planning for it in a meticulous way involving not only the health sector," he told CTV's Canada AM from Geneva.

Saxena says there is a general misconception that suicide is a problem mostly found in rich countries. The WHO's new report shows this is not true; in fact, 75 per cent of suicides occur in low- and middle-income countries.

In low-income countries, elderly women have higher rates of suicide than their counterparts in high-income countries. In richer countries, three times as many men die by suicide than women.

Globally, suicide rates are highest in people over the age of 70. But in some countries, the highest rates are found among the young. Globally, suicide is now the second leading cause of death among 15-29 year-olds.

Saxena says, even in the world's poor countries, it's the poorest segments of society that are at the highest risk of committing suicide.

"So suicide is a truly global phenomenon and the solution can be global," he said.

Brian Mishara, a psychology professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal, says the report represents a recognition that the burden of mental illness and suicide is far greater than previously estimated.

"In many parts of the world, suicides are a very taboo topic," he told CTV News. "In 25 countries, people can be jailed for attempting suicide. So this is something that needs more attention because this is so common a cause of premature death."

The WHO report says one strategy that can reduce suicides is to enact policies that restrict people's access to the most common methods of suicide.

It notes that suicide is often an impulsive decision, and that evidence from Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere show that many who attempt suicide but receive help later go on to live long lives. For that reason, limiting access to the most common suicide methods can help reduce suicide rates.

Deliberate pesticide poisoning, for example, is a common means of suicide in rural countries, so policies to control access to these chemicals is one method that can address the problem. Controlling access to firearms is another, as is creating suicide barriers on bridges and railways.

"But the other important initiative should be to make health care and social care systems much more responsive to people who are at high risk of suicide," Saxena said.

The report notes that mental disorders and alcohol abuse contribute to many suicides around the world, so early identification and treatments of these problems would also help cut suicide rates.

The World Health Organization recommends countries involve several government departments in developing a national suicide prevention strategy, with commitment not just from within the health sector, but also within education, employment, social welfare and judicial departments.

“This report is a call for action to address a large public health problem which has been shrouded in taboo for far too long” WHO's Director-General, Dr. Margaret Chan, said in a statement.