Irish have highest male to female suicide ratio


Young Irish males are seven times more likely to commit suicide than females, the highest ratio in the world, according to figures from the World Health Organisation.

In an editorial in the current issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry, the late Dr Michael Kelleher, who was head of the National Suicide Research Foundation in Cork, writes that the rise in Irish suicide rates differs markedly by gender and these differences are increasing. Our male to female ratio for 15 to 24-year-olds is the highest internationally, according to WHO figures from 1988 to 1992.

Of the 10 countries with the highest male to female suicide ratios during this period, seven are English-speaking and were, at some point, part of the British Empire. If the differences are not related to recording practices or other administrative factors, said Dr Kelleher, it would suggest "that some shared cultural heritage is influencing suicidal behaviour in their young people".

Dr Kelleher, who died last month, said there had been a slight rise in the number of females committing suicide in the 20- to 24-year-old age group, but overall the female rate has been stable for the past two decades.

A depressed young man today would more readily consider and act upon thoughts of suicide than he would have a generation ago, possibly for reasons which related to the transformation of societies throughout the world, he said.

He pointed out that in Ireland religious worship had declined, as had doctrinal belief in concepts such as hell, Papal infallibility and the Bible as the word of God. Yet the greatest rise in young persons' suicide has occurred in rural areas, where they have remained most loyal to church practices. Dr Kelleher said increasing availability of illegal drugs did not appear to be a significant cause of the Irish rise in young suicides. "This would not appear to be a significant cause of the rise in Irish suicide rates because there are more cases of drug misuse referred in the EHB area, with a population of 1.2 million, than in the rest of the country and yet the EHB has the lowest suicide rate."

It might be, he said, that the health services in the EHB area were adequate to deal with the problem but services might be insufficient in other areas.

Attempting to explain why there had been such an increase in suicide rates among young Irish males, Dr Kelleher said the overall trend appeared to be towards the exclusion of young men from the family unit. "If there is a separation it is usually the male parental figure that leaves the home, therefore, male role models for adolescents may be perceived in a less permanent and more negative way today than they were in more traditional times."

Many more changes in Irish society in recent years that have not yet been analysed include increasing urbanisation, marked internal migration and widespread industrialisation, as well as a great increase in the gross national product.

"Any of these could contribute to the increase in suicide. It should be emphasised, however, that the rise in young male suicide simply reflects what is happening in many Western societies and it is unwise to seek a purely internal system of causation rather than a wider one shared with many other countries," he concluded.