With so much attention focused on the question of assisted dying in political and media circles, it is easy to forget, if only for a brief moment, the thousands of people who take their own life every year.
In 2012, 5,981 people in Britain committed suicide.
One of them was the lovely 15-year-old Tallulah Wilson, whose devastated parents – understandably – now campaign about the dangers of the internet: Tallulah was thought to have been “in the clutches of a toxic digital world”, in the words of her mother, because prior to her death she accessed blogs that endorse self-harm.
The official annual suicide figures, which have just been released, make for important reading about the situation in Britain. First, the good news, for there is some, although it comes with caveats: figures fluctuate, numbers are small and changes are minute, which makes it difficult to draw firm conclusions. Nonetheless, just under 6,000 people took their own lives in 2012, which is 64 fewer than the previous year.
Looking specifically at Scotland, which has always had a higher rate than England, there were 830 suicides registered in 2012. That is 59 fewer than the previous year.
Although the figures go up and down, there is a slight downward trend in suicide rates for the UK since the mid-1990s across most age groups.
In 1981, the male suicide rate was 1.9 times that for women. Since then, the rate for women has halved. Fewer women are killing themselves than used to. That’s good news, possibly due to changes in their social position and increased independence. In Scotland, the rate of suicide has decreased overall by 18 per cent in the last ten years. And although every life lost this way is a tragedy, that there are fewer people committing such a devastating act is a positive trend.
That’s except for middle-aged men. Three-quarters of those who took their own lives in 2012 were male. That more men take their lives than women is not new, but what is significant is that a particular group appears to be at the most risk. The total number of men aged between 45 and 59 committing suicide was almost 40 per cent higher in 2012 than it was less than a decade earlier. To put it starkly, middle-aged men in lower socio-economic groups are more likely to take their own life than anyone else – it is more likely to be a Jimmy than a Tallulah.
This is a dramatic change from 20 years ago, when it was young men who were most at risk. Quite possibly, it is the same group, just that they are now older. Professor Rory O’Connor, who leads the Suicidal Behaviour Research Laboratory at Glasgow University, suggests that there may be “a cohort effect, where same people who were high risk in their twenties are carrying that risk.”
Why is this? This is a generation profoundly affected by major social and cultural changes. The role of men in society is markedly different to how it used to be. The job for life has gone. Historically, they were the breadwinner. Now they are more likely to have a partner who also brings home the bacon. Or they may not have a job at all; the decline in industry has affected many. And they may not have a partner. Men who divorce often lose the only person they might have confided in – this is a generation and a gender that doesn’t talk about feelings that much.
Any other factors? Sadly, yes, quite a few: mid-life was once the prime of life, but that is no longer the case; youth is venerated over experience. And unlike the younger generations who have grown up in this changed world, men aged 49-59 have different expectations of what they should be and how they should behave. Poverty and deprivation are serious risk factors, so is the changing position of men. We have yet to catch up and address these issues.
One response to the publication of the figures has been to stress the problem of self-harm websites, but I doubt this is the best place to concentrate our efforts. Don’t get me wrong – those sites are sick – they make you wonder what the hell is wrong with people who go online and encourage others to hurt themselves, even to end to it all. I imagine these sites aggravate distress. But the act of suicide is influenced by broader factors that demand solid social interventions. Addressing poverty, jobs, social isolation and issues of self-worth is not easy, but focusing attention on these areas is more likely to address the problem than monitoring the web.
In Scotland there have been a number of initiatives that seem to be making a small but important difference. “Choose Life”, Scotland’s national strategy and action plan to prevent suicide, appears to having an effect. As part of it, the NHS has 50 per cent of frontline and key staff trained in suicide prevention. Tackling problem drinking has also played a part.
All local authorities have a suicide prevention plan. Police, prison and universities have all taken on some responsibility. Overall, some of the stigma has been removed with various campaigns, like – “Suicide: Don’t hide it. Talk about it” and “Read Between the Lines” – which help people to talk more about their problems. Social media can also help here, but it should never be a substitute for support from people offline, which also means you and me. There has been a focus on helping men of a certain age and socio-economic background, with schemes that reduce isolation, such as exercise activities in their own football club – where they feel they belong, rather the often feminised and far-away gym.
Looking at these strategies, and contrasting them with what could become something of a moral panic around the internet, is salutary. The results should encourage us to be cautiously optimistic, but not over- confident – there is a great deal more to do. Choose Life is the way to go.