New suicide statistics: unravelling the complex picture and encouraging people to talk more openly about suicide

By Hazel Nunn


  • 6,122 suicide deaths were registered in the UK in 2014 and are a stark reminder of the sheer scale of suicide in the UK
  • Reporting the numbers of suicide deaths and changing rates in the UK is one way to draw attention to the devastating toll of suicide
  • Unravelling the complexity of what may lie behind changing suicide rates in the UK is extremely difficult - comparing changes in suicide rates in the different nations of the UK may shed further light
  • Encouraging people to talk more openly about suicidal thoughts and feelings - whether to a friend, family member, doctor, counsellor or Samaritans - will help
  • Suicide is not inevitable, it’s preventable and everyone can play a role to ensure fewer people die by suicide

New statistics released today show that suicide rates fell by 2% in the UK between 2013 and 2014.  This equated to 120 fewer people dying by suicide in 2014 compared to the previous year. Firstly, and most importantly, any decrease – however small – in the number of people dying by suicide is to be welcomed. But today’s overall pattern masks different trends in men and women and in different parts of the UK.

In the UK as a whole, 113 more women died by suicide in 2014 than in the previous year, while male suicide rates in the UK dropped compared to 2013, by more than 5%. Men remain much more likely than women to die by suicide.

These new 2014 figures, published by the Office for National Statistics provide the most up-to-date and complete picture of suicide in the UK including information about the groups at greatest risk. 

Unravelling this complex picture is not easy, but it is necessary to enable effective action to reduce the large number of people who die by suicide. It’s not clear yet whether the increase in female suicides in 2014 might be the start of a continued and worrying trend, or whether this may be reversed next year. And we don’t yet know whether this first indication of a declining suicide rate in UK males will be sustained. We can’t afford to be complacent.

Every death by suicide is a tragedy

As well as providing the UK suicide rates – which is the most robust way to compare suicide patterns from year to year and between groups - today’s new statistics are a stark reminder of the sheer scale of suicide in the UK. 6,122 suicide deaths were registered in the UK in 2014. Each and every one of these deaths by suicide is a terrible tragedy. Bereavement can have a devastating effect on families, friends and colleagues. In cases of bereavement by suicide, feelings of devastation, incomprehension and guilt are often magnified with the impact felt across communities and generations.

Behind every single one of these 6,122 deaths by suicide is a story. If we had understood those stories better; if we – as individuals, organisations and society - were better at reaching people, at listening without judgment, at offering empathy and kindness, many, perhaps most, of these deaths may have been preventable.

The importance of talking more openly about suicide

Reporting the numbers of suicide deaths and changing rates in the UK is one way to draw attention to the devastating toll of suicide. We at Samaritans believe that by publicising information like this we can help encourage people to talk more openly about suicidal thoughts and feelings, break taboos and barriers to seeking support, making it easier for people to ask for help if they are feeing suicidal or struggling to cope. Samaritans is available on 116 123, text or email, for anyone who is struggling and needs to talk to someone.  Calls are free, anytime, from any phone (this is possible even if you have no credit on your mobile phone). Calling Samaritans doesn’t show on your bill.

The new suicide figures in context

The new suicide figures seem to suggest a change to recent suicide trends in the UK: amongst both males and females. In the 1980s, 90s and 2000s, suicide rates in both males and females in the UK fell fairly steadily, reaching historically low rates in 2007. Unfortunately this was not to continue. Since 2007, suicide rates amongst men have increased fairly steadily, while suicide rates in females have remained relatively constant.

The new 2014 figures are the first indication that things may be changing again. In 2014, female suicides rose. Male suicide rates fell for the first time since 2010, although men remain three times more likely than women to die by suicide.


 

Unravelling the complexity of what may lie behind changing suicide rates in the UK is extremely difficult. A detailed look at patterns amongst different age groups reveals that, as in previous years, rates of suicide were highest in middle age amongst both men and women, but doesn’t appear to offer any clear explanations for this year’s rates. Comparing trends in suicide in the different nations of the UK may shed further light. Suicide rates in Scotland have decreased in recent years, with particularly large falls in male suicide rates.

In 2014, Scotland suicide rates followed the same pattern as in the UK overall, rising in females and falling in males. In 2014 suicide rates also fell in Wales, particularly amongst males. These gender differences in suicide trends may be one of the most important clues to help us understand the recent patterns of suicide in the UK.
 

Men are more likely to die by suicide than women

Men have always had higher rates of suicide than women in the UK. The latest figures show that rates of suicide in males are still three times those in females (16.8 per 100,000 in males compared to 5.2 per 100,000 in females).  

A research report led by Samaritans looked at the complex reasons that may explain why men are more likely than women to take their own lives. We found unemployment, relationship breakdown, fragmentation of social relationships may play a role, along with psychological characteristics like impulsivity and perceived barriers to talking about emotions and seeking help. Middle-aged men from the most deprived socio-economic backgrounds are at the highest risk of suicide. But we still have so much to learn about why men are at increased risk of suicide.

We are working hard to encourage anyone, male or female to seek help if they are struggling to cope. Although there is some evidence that men are less likely than women to talk to someone if they are struggling to cope, it is not clear why and there may be complex reasons. It could be that services are geared up to the needs of women.  This is just one of many areas of suicide prevention where more research is needed. We hope that by re-emphasising the elevated risk of suicide in men, today’s new figures might encourage everyone to pay extra attention to the men in their lives and support them to seek help.     

Reducing the burden of suicide

It’s difficult to comprehend the devastation that the 6,122 deaths by suicide in 2014 will have caused, and will continue to be causing. Unlike other major public health problems like cancer and coronary heart disease, suicide is most common in people of working age. In 2014, for both men and women the highest suicide rates were for those aged 45-59 years.  And unlike cancer or heart disease, many people still find suicide difficult to talk about. We at Samaritans believe that encouraging people to talk more openly about suicidal thoughts and feelings - whether to a friend, family member, doctor, counsellor or Samaritans - will help.

We will be watching closely for future changes in suicide rates to see if today’s indications continue. Suicide is not inevitable, it’s preventable. We will continue to work with others to respond swiftly and effectively.  Today’s new figures are an important reminder that there is so much work still to do. We must redouble our efforts to ensure fewer people die by suicide – and everyone of us can play a role.