The death of American actor and comedian Robin Williams from suicide was a chilling reminder of the vulnerability of humanity to self destruct. Within days of his death it was reported that the number of males seeking help from depression and anxiety significantly increased.
In Australia, for example, the number of males seeking help from support charities doubled. Down under suicide is the leading cause of death among men and women under 45. A shocking statistic.
But everywhere you look suicide rates globally shock and alarm. According to a World Health Report Preventing Suicide: a Global Perspective a person dies from suicide every 40 seconds on the planet (and that total does not include the number of failed suicides). Over 800,000 suicides occur worldwide each year. Some countries have suicide rates 40 times the rate of others. On average suicide is the second most common killer among people aged between 15 and 29.
For example, the global average suicide rate is 11 per 100,000 population. The WHO report shows that North Korea has the highest suicide rate with 39.5 per 100,000 population, while South Korea is almost as high at 36.6. In India the figure is 21.6 per 100,000. The UK is slightly above average at 11.6.
WHO also found that suicide is more likely in low- and middle-class income groups, rather than higher income groups. Only 28 countries currently have a suicide prevention strategy.
The situation globally then is disturbing. But here in the UK suicide remains a huge problem. Early this year official figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that in 2012, 5,981 people aged 15 and over died from suicide in the UK, a rate of 11.6 suicides per 100,000. The figures also showed that men were three and a half times more likely to kill themselves than women.
Though the UK suicide rate has not risen significantly since 2011, the rate has increased significantly since 2007.
But whereas since 1981 the number of women dying from suicide has fallen (from 2,466 to 1,391) the rate for male suicide has remained stubbornly resistant to change. In 1981, 4,129 men took their own lives. In 2012 the total had risen to 4,590. The discrepancy between make and female suicide rates is now the biggest since records began. The largest suicide rate for males is in the 40-44 age group, at nearly 26 per 100,000 population.
But the issue of male suicide was not addressed at first by the current Government campaign to try and stop suicide. Towards the end of 2012, the Department of Health's suicide prevention strategy identified nine vulnerable groups, including the young, but it failed to recognise the increasing vulnerability of males.
In 2014 the strategy finally acknowledged the problem in the male 40-44 age group, a first step in the attempt to help but it did not prevent criticism of a 30-year failure to confront suicide tendencies among UK males.
Ally Fogg, a journalist specialising in social issues, wrote in the Guardian:
Our failure to even dent the rate of male suicides over 30 years is a national scandal and a national tragedy. It is a failure that has cost tens of thousands of lives, stolen from us too many friends, fathers, sons, and brothers. To what extent we might have been able to reduce the rates with a concerted effort we cannot know because, shamefully, we have never really tried. If the next 30 years are to follow a different pattern, then acknowledging the true nature of the problem is a vital first step.
Especially galling is the suicide rate among our prisons, where overcrowding and a prison population, which has doubled in 25 years, has exacerbated human vulnerabilities. Worse, the current Government's tough guy posturing has resulted in a 'lack of care' in prisons, where understaffing has contributed to a rising suicide rate. Early this year it was reported that the prison suicide rate in England and Wales among males - 70 in 2013 and rising year on year since 2008 - was soaring at an alarming rate.
When someone dies from suicide there is still a certain stigma. It took until 1879 before English law distinguished between suicide and homicide, and long afterwards if a person died from suicide, they forfeited their estate.
What the world needs now, and hopefully the Government's own suicide prevention strategy will gradually provide it, is a means by which we can challenge increasing suicide rates. The problem in the UK, however, has been made worse by welfare and NHS cuts in services, especially in mental ill health. We need to be more tolerant and forgiving, more inclusive and less unequal. We reflect the world we live in.
For support and help on issues around suicide, you can contact the Samaritans on 116 123.
This blog post is part of Society Matters. The blog seeks to inform, stimulate and challenge our understanding of this changing world and of our humbling role within it. Find out more about the blog and the team.
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