Statistics and trends
Around the world there are about one million suicides a year.
Although the number of young men driven to suicide has increased dramatically over the past couple of decades, suicides among women have fallen substantially. It may be that women are simply better at expressing and dealing with their distress, although the fall has also been attributed to suicide prevention strategies, improved social conditions and changes that have affected the way people try to commit suicide, such as selling only limited amounts of paracetamol at a time (reducing the risk of impulsive overdose) and catalytic converters on cars (which makes using car exhaust fumes more difficult).
What leads to suicide?
The factors that lead someone to take their own life are complex. There is rarely one single trigger, although there may be an important ‘last straw’.
People may be more vulnerable to suicide because of a genetic predisposition, personality trait or lack of support. In many suicides there has been a long history of mental health problems, the main ones among women being depression, eating disorders and schizophrenia. Relationship problems are also frequent factors among women.
Other factors include physical illness, alcohol and drug abuse, social isolation and job problems. Even low cholesterol levels and the phases of the moon have been implicated. But one in five suicides, especially among the young, show no previous sign of emotional difficulties – just some sudden upset.
The final straw may be the end of an important relationship, having to face up to debt or a court case, or simply an event that stirs the emotions. This is particularly true for women. For example, after Princess Diana’s death in 1997 there was a 33 per cent rise in suicides among women. This increase was particularly marked among women of a similar age to Diana. Deliberate self-harm also increased. It’s thought that her death may have made people feel worse about their own personal distress.
Can It Be Prevented?
Marriage and a strong religious faith appear to protect against suicide, although these are hardly things that can be prescribed or bought.
The World Health Organization has recommended six broad approaches to prevention:
- effective treatment of those with mental disorders
- control of gun possession
- detoxification of domestic gas
- detoxification of car emissions
- control of availability of toxic substances
- toning down of reports in the media
The website of the International Association for Suicide Prevention contains good general background information about suicide and how it can be prevented.
Suicide is rare under the age of 14, because young children lack the ability or understanding to act it out. Older children are much more likely to consider suicide impulsively. (For information especially for young people about suicide, click here.)
However, younger women are more likely to resort to deliberate self-harm and attempted suicide, rather than suicide itself. At least 140,000 people in England and Wales attempt suicide every year, and this number is rising dramatically, particularly among the young.
This isn’t failed suicide, but rather a ‘cry for help’ and it’s most common among teenage girls. However, it’s a mistake not to take it seriously. Many repeatedly attempt suicide and about one in 100 will die by suicide within a year of an attempt; a suicide risk approximately 100 times that of the general population. Everyone who has tried to kill themselves – old or young, female or male – must be assessed by a health professional, usually in hospital.
Losing someone through suicide
As men are more likely to commit suicide, women are more likely to be left picking up the pieces.
Losing someone you care for is intensely painful, but when the death was intentional there are particularly difficult issues to work through. The grieving process is characterised by agonising questioning and a search for some explanation.
Talk to your doctor or get advice from The Compassionate Friends, which runs local support groups for parents bereaved through suicide.
Helping someone who might be contemplating suicide
If you’re worried that someone you know may be contemplating suicide, there are several things you should do to help get them through the crisis.
- Listen to what they have to say – let them express their worries and tell you how they see life.
- Don’t try to offer simple solutions. Suicidal people want someone who won’t judge and give advice or opinions, but who will give their undivided attention.
- Encourage them to talk to their doctor or people used to dealing with this problem, such as The Samaritans.
- If they won’t get help and you’re worried they may be in immediate danger, call the emergency services (999) and let the professionals sort it out.
This article was last medically reviewed by Dr Trisha Macnair in August 2005.
First published in November 1997.