Suicide cannot be reduced to an economic equation


Ireland’s suicide rate has been linked to the recession but people take their lives for a myriad of reasons, writes JOHN WATERS

SUICIDE IS a topic wherein a combination of emotive content and ideological and/or short-view interpretations of the available data causes the public discussion to short-circuit into syllogistic analyses. Earlier this week, the president of the Irish Association of Suicidology (IAS), Fine Gael TD Dan Neville, described the just-released suicide figures for 2011 as “frightening but not surprising” given the impact the economy was having on mental health.

In fact, the suicide levels for 2011 showed a 7 per cent increase on the 2010 figure, which was down 8 per cent on 2009. The jury remains out on the connection Dan Neville inferred.

Two days ago, the Independent TD for Waterford, John Halligan, speaking in Dáil Éireann, quoted the IAS as suggesting that for every percentage point rise in unemployment there is a 0.78 per cent rise in the suicide rate. Halligan proceeded to an argument about the alleged gap between “rich” and “poor”, intimating a link between suicide rates and disposable income.

I first wrote about suicide more than 20 years ago at the tail end of the last major economic downturn. Then, as now, connections were proposed between suicide and recession. Attending coroners’ courts and speaking to professionals who dealt with suicides, I came to perceive an odd and somewhat contradictory phenomenon: visible sociological patterns that masked a myriad of subjectivities. Each suicide had its unique context and circumstances; yet the sum of such actions seemed to add up to a consistent pattern year on year.

Anecdotal evidence notwithstanding, the general statistical patterns over recent decades do not bear out the idea of a direct link between suicide and recession.

For more than a decade, the suicide figure that feature in media headlines – ie the absolute number of recorded deaths – has hovered about the 500 mark. There were 519 suicides in 2001; 478 in 2002; 497 in 2003; and 493 in 2004. The number of suicides was 525 in 2011, up on 2010 but slightly lower than 2009. (This, of course, was a period in which the Irish population was expanding dramatically, which indicates an overall decline in the rate of suicide.)

From the early 1980s to the late 1990s, Ireland’s recorded suicide rate doubled, from about 6 per 100,000 to about 12 per 100,000. However, most of the sharpest acceleration took place during periods of economic expansion, especially between 1993 and 1999, when suicides increased by 50 per cent.

There may be a connection between unemployment and suicide, but if so it is more complex than the conventional interpretation proposes.

A 2009 study, “Suicide and Employment Status during Ireland’s Celtic Tiger Economy”, (Corcoran and Arensman), published in the European Journal of Public Health, pointed out that unemployment showed up as a causal factor in suicide more strongly when unemployment levels are low, compared with periods in which unemployment is high or decreasing. One interpretation of this relates to the stigma pertaining to being unemployed in a high-employment society.

Behind the general statistics, however, there is a persistence of certain recalcitrant and deeply worrying phenomena.

The most glaring is that, since the 1980s, male suicides have occurred at about four times the rate of female suicides, rendering Ireland among the most dangerous societies in Europe for young men.

Media reports often effect a blurring around the quite vivid distinctions to be noted between male and female suicide rates. “A total of 439 men and 86 women were recorded as having taken their own lives, the majority of whom were aged 15-44,” stated a report in this newspaper on the 2011 statistics. In fact, this age profile overwhelmingly reflects the male rather than the female statistics.

The optimum age category for female suicide is early 50s, whereas males are most at risk in their early 20s. Between 1980 and the late 2000s, the graph of female suicide remained horizontal, at about four suicides per 100,000 of population annually. The male rate, however, went from approximately eight per 100,000 in 1980 to almost three times that in the late 1990s. After 2000 the figures dipped, rose sharply and dipped again in quick succession, with some evidence of another upward trend at present.

Male dominance of suicide statistics remains the aspect of the phenomenon attracting least attention, being invariably fudged in treatment of the statistics or buried under a range of ambiguities concerning the role of alcohol, drugs and what is termed “mental health”.

Certainly there is an apparent link between alcohol consumption and suicide but less clear is whether this link is causal or tautological. Do young men take their lives due to alcohol abuse or for reasons related to the reasons that cause them to drink abusively? Similarly, what is mental health? Is it reasonable to decide that someone who takes his or her life has self-evidently been mentally unwell?

What seems to be true is suicide levels relate to societal attitudes towards individual circumstances and conditions rather than any measurable social trends. People take their lives for subjective reasons, which in turn reflect how the community supports or bears down upon the individual. To reduce these profound human questions to economic equations does a disservice to those who have died by their own hand and those who remain at risk of doing so in the future.

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