Sunday, 28 April 2013




The numbers of those young people found to have committed suicide each year are a stark reminder of the painful human cost of mental illness. The loss of a young life is always shocking and distressing but in the case of suicide there is an added sense of despair and helplessness evoked. Suicide is now the second most common cause of death in young men and women in the UK.

The latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) provides an opportunity to examine in closer detail what has been happening over the past 30 years, from 1981 to 2011. The official press release highlighted the recent jump in the annual number of suicides. There were 6,045 suicides in people aged 15 and over in the UK in 2011, compared with 5608 in 2010 – a rise of 437 people. The ONS figures showed that the UK suicide rate “increased significantly” from 11.1 deaths per 100,000 population to 11.8 deaths per 100,000 population. These statistics relate to the whole population, so it is worth noting that the corresponding figures for young people aged between 15 and 25 years were: 14.1 and 14.8 deaths per 100,000 population. Young people are thus more at risk of suicide than older people.

However closer analysis of the 30 year data reveals some worrying trends in the context of the current Economic crisis. For children aged 15-19 years there were on average more than 4 suicides every week, while for young people aged 19-25 there were 14 per week. Together on average nearly 3 young people between the ages of 15 and 25 committed suicide every day of the week.

In terms of the percentage of the young population this translates as a yearly average of over 5% per 100,000 for 15-19 year olds, and nearly 18% per 100,000 for 19-25 year olds. Put together the total number of suicides between 1981 and 2011 of young people between 15 and 25 years of age who committed suicide was 21,006. Or an average of over 700 per year.

These numbers disguise peaks, troughs and trends so further statistical analysis shows above average years as well as trends which can be calculated by regression analysis and other statistical models. For example there were 15 years out of the past 30 when the yearly average of suicides of young people was higher. Any link with other variables such as unemployment and economic recession could be useful for researchers and government planners in the Department of Education. The figures show that in the peak years of unemployment in 1983/84; 1992/93 and 2009/10 while there were higher than average numbers of suicides in young people, those years did not correlate with the highest numbers or averages over the past 30 years.

Another important variable is the relaxation of legal constraints related to alcohol availability and the increase in opening times for pubs and clubs which happened during the previous government's term of office. The link between alcohol, drug abuse and suicide is well established - whether it is perceived as a cause or effect phenomena. In other words a young person who is depressed may turn to alcohol and drugs to blot out their inner pain. Or excess drink and drug use could trigger a depressive episode combined with disinhibition.

Interpretation of these data is always problematic. For example the way Unemployment is calculated has been changed more than 30 times over this period of time by successive governments, making comparisons and extrapolation very difficult. The recording of suicides by coroners is also variable around the country and is understood to be an under-representation of the actual number of suicides in young people due to the lack of evidence in many unusual deaths of a corroborating note, or other indication of intent. Coroners are reluctant therefore to record an official suicide verdict where there is any doubt and also to protect the feelings of grieving parents and family.

Other factors associated with suicide can include parental mental illness, alcohol and drug abuse, childhood sexual abuse, a history of depression, early-onset psychosis, chronic neglect and poor attachment. All of these can be exaggerated by poverty, unemployment, poor housing, bullying and undiagnosed learning or developmental disabilities. Longitudinal studies conducted by Universities and Research Institutes can provide the fine grain needed to illuminate useful aspects from the raw data. However they are very expensive to undertake and sustain, and they can only offer interpretations based on the best available evidence and research methodologies.

The previous government launched the National Suicide Prevention Strategy  in 2002 with a target of reducing suicides by at least 20 per cent by the year 2010. This period combined with an unprecedented increased in NHS funding and specific hefty increases in CAMHS budgets. That target was achieved in terms of suicides in young people, and it happened to co-incide with a period of strong Economic growth. We are now in a period of Economic crisis combined with heavily-reduced CAMHS budgets. This does not bode well.

Steven Walker, Systemic Psychotherapist, Youth Enquiry Service, Essex.

Reference: Office for National Statistics, (2012). Suicides in the United Kingdom- 2011. London, ONS.