Hope is a loaded word when it comes to suicide. In its most fundamental form, hope can save a life – or, at least, its absence can end one. But this week, as news about male-suicide rates filtered through the papers and the timelines, it appeared that there was something to be hopeful for: rates of death by suicide in men, new statistics reveal, are the lowest since records began in 1981. The “uptick” of rates in suicide following the recession has, ostensibly, been “reversed”, the papers say. A greater focus on men’s mental health, experts said, is encouraging men to seek help during times of ill-health. For the first time in decades, something positive – the talking could, slowly but demonstrably, be turning into action. A whisper-mill began: dare we… hope?
Perhaps. The news is certainly more than encouraging, and a welcome change to the usual headlines we’re used to: even from the last few weeks about teenagers and children and doctors and grieving men, and shortages in funding and gaps – huge, strident gaps – in care. The latest figures, from the Office For National Statistics (ONS) revealed that last year, there were 4,382 suicides by men (a rate of 15.5 deaths per 100,000, down from 16 the year before). It’s the lowest rate for 30 years. “It’s encouraging to see the reduction in male suicide,” Ruth Sutherland, chief executive of the Samaritans, told The Times newspaper. “We believe that the focus of suicide prevention in recent years to tackle the higher rates in men has contributed.
“Added to this, reducing stigma around men’s mental health and encouraging men to open up and ask for help when they are struggling has been beneficial."
“But,” she added, “one death by suicide is still one too many. Suicide is complex and it’s a problem of inequality. It affects the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in society, male, female, disproportionately. This is an urgent public-health issue, not simply a health or mental-health one.”
Indeed, the falling rate is something to be celebrated with fervour – but certain nuances of the report should not be overlooked. For instance, that suicide is a class issue; with higher-paid groups (like directors) being at the lowest risk of death, and men in low-skilled jobs bearing a 44% higher risk. And men are still three times as likely to die by suicide than women – a grotesque figure that shows the scale of the problem is bewilderingly greater than this triumph.
Too many people are dying. And we need to ask – and address, as a matter of urgency – why?
Additionally, the rate of suicide among women has stayed broadly the same – a rate of 4.9 women per 100,000 – while deaths by suicide in young women aged 15-19 is at an all-time high since records began. While reports do not appear to have suicide data on intersects within broader groups in society – for instance, BAME men and women or LGBTQ+ communities – it’s well-documented that BAME men and women are more likely to suffer mental-health issues, and suicide attempts, especially among trans people, are reaching epidemic levels – Stonewall estimates that almost half (45%) of all trans people have attempted suicide in their lifetimes.
All that is to say that, despite the wholly welcomed news yesterday, too many people are dying. And we need to ask – and address, as a matter of urgency – why?
Perhaps one consideration might be the revealing research that showed 72% of all people who died by suicide between 2002 and 2012 had not had a diagnosis – or contact with health services – before taking their own lives. Of course, many factors could contribute to this fact – persistent shame around mental health, fear of being judged or misunderstood, even by those we hold closest, and, perhaps, that a pervasive feeling of being unable to access or depend on mental-health services, even if we can bring ourselves to say the unsayable.
It’s also interesting, if unsurprising, that it’s the voluntary sector that is credited with leading the way in treating those in urgent need of help. The government must now follow suit. Because this week’s statistics are a stark reminder that putting an emphasis on mental health – talking about it and helping to disseminate understanding of it – can save lives.
It will not be an easy road: mental health is a precarious thing that is not easy to see, and much harder to understand. When a person is contorted by it, it can be scary and it can be hard work – for them and for others around them. Even people who might claim to understand periods of mental ill-health, myself included, often don’t spot it, and many, many don’t have the tolerance or patience to deal with it. It’s not easy to ask someone for help, to face the fear of their rejection and move on from that, or, conversely, to accept help. It’s hard to be told you’re “hard work” or to feel like a burden on others, especially those you love. But, more often than not, you simply cannot get better on your own. So we must keep asking.
And, like with yesterday’s new statistics, we must, all of us, keep hoping.
If you are feeling depressed or suicidal, please call the Samaritansanytime, for free, from any phone, on 116 123.