When someone takes their own life, the death is registered and we have a record of who they were, as well as where, when and how they died. These figures tell us that men, divorced people and those living in less well-off areas are at greater risk of suicide. But these facts only tell part of the story.
In 2016, there were 4,941 deaths recorded as suicide in England and Wales - but there are much larger numbers of people who consider taking their own lives.
In the same year, Samaritans volunteers had more than 770,000 contacts from people who expressed suicidal feelings. This included people thinking about suicide, making plans, or actively attempting it.
Ahead of World Suicide Prevention Day on 10 September 2017, Samaritans told us the story of someone who considered suicide.
Kristian had lost both his parents by the time he was 12, leaving his grandparents to bring him up.
“I shut away my grief and didn’t deal with it,” he said. “As I got older, it particularly affected my ability to form close relationships.”
In his 20s, Kristian was working as a teacher, and circumstances combined to make him feel very lonely and isolated. “Everyone around me seemed to be settling down with their partners, buying houses and it just wasn’t happening for me,” he said. He was being bullied at work, which intensified his feelings of unhappiness.
“I started waking up at night and crying, and I had a lot of bad thoughts. I knew two people who had taken their own lives, and they had said they felt helpless, and I felt like that too.
“I also had problems dealing with the comedown from drinking alcohol, and on one particular day I went to the gym the morning after, but couldn’t really do anything, so I ended up at the beach nearby. I was about the only person there apart from some surfers a quarter of a mile away. The tide was a long way out. I was crying, I felt I had had enough and thought no one could help me.
“I started walking in to the waves, but when I had got quite a way in that made it real, and I started to panic that I couldn’t do it. I got myself out and something in my head went: ‘Call Samaritans’. I sat in my car, soaking wet and spoke to this man for 40 minutes. It probably saved my life.”
Suicide in England and Wales is declining
Suicide is not as prevalent as it used to be. In England and Wales in 2016, there were 4,941 deaths recorded as suicide – fewer than in each of the previous three years.
The suicide rate – the number of deaths per 100,000 people – has been broadly declining since comparable records began in 1981, although between 2007 and 2013 (following the economic downturn) there was a rise in the suicide rate for men.
Suicide rates by sex, England and Wales, 1981 to 2016 registrations
The recent decline in the suicide rate is likely to be due to the suicide prevention work in England by the government, the NHS, charities, the British Transport Police and others. The National Suicide Prevention Strategy for England has included work to reduce the risk of suicide in high-risk groups. These include young and middle-aged men, people in the care of mental health services, and those in the criminal justice system.
To record a verdict of suicide, coroners must find “beyond reasonable doubt” that the person intended to end their life. Where this can’t be proved, coroners may record an open verdict, or find the death to have been caused by accident or misadventure1. For this reason, ONS includes in suicide statistics those deaths of “undetermined intent”.
Men at much greater risk of suicide
Since around 1990, men have been at least three times as vulnerable to death from suicide as women. Research by Samaritans suggests that this greater risk is due to a complex set of reasons, including increased family breakdown leaving more men living alone; the decline of many traditionally male-dominated industries; and social expectations about masculinity:
"They have seen their jobs, relationships and identity blown apart. There is a large gap between the reality of life for such men and the masculine ideal."
Divorce and risk of suicide
Relationship breakdown can also contribute to suicide risk. The greatest risk is among divorced men, who in 2015 were almost three times more likely to end their lives than men who were married or in a civil partnership. According to research by Samaritans:
"Divorce increases the risk of suicide because the individual becomes disconnected from their domestic relationship and social norms. In addition, within western societies there is a strong cultural emphasis on achieving a strong and happy marriage, and those who divorce may experience a deep sense of disorientation, shame, guilt and emotional hurt.”
Suicide rate by marital status, England and Wales, 2006 to 2015
People in less well-off areas are more likely to end their lives
People who live in more deprived areas - where there is less access to things like services, work and education2 - are more at risk of suicide.
People among the most deprived 10% of society are more than twice as likely to die from suicide than the least deprived 10% of society.
Suicide rate per deprivation decile, England, 2006 to 2015
People who work as carers, or in the arts, or as low-skilled workers, have a significantly higher risk of suicide than those in other occupations, according to our recent study of suicide by occupation in England. Men who work as skilled manual workers are at greater risk, as are female nurses, nursery and primary school teachers.
The lowest risk of suicide was found among corporate managers and directors, professionals including health professionals, and people working in customer service and sales.
Statistics and suicide prevention
Compiling and publishing suicide statistics helps organisations like Samaritans do their work in preventing suicide by helping them to identify trends and vulnerable groups. Office for National Statistics also monitors emergent suicide methods, to advise policymakers on preventing these, and informs the government’s policy and strategy on suicide prevention.
You can contact Samaritans on 116 123 (UK and Republic of Ireland; this number will not appear on your phone bill), email email@example.com, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of the nearest branch.
Death Certification and Investigation in England, Wales and Northern Ireland: The Report of a Fundamental Review 2003
The Index of Multiple Deprivation takes account of these factors as well as income, health, crime and housing.