Mental Health and Gender: How Much Do Suicide Statistics Really Tell Us?

By Lindsay Riddoch

Trigger Warning: Suicide

In 2013, 6,223 people died by suicide in the UK. That’s more than 6000 individual tragedies, and many more friends and families whose lives will never be the same again. In reality there were almost certainly many more people who died by suicide than that – but coroners tend to avoid ruling suicide if they possibly can. Every single one of those deaths is, I believe, partially the responsibility of the whole community. It takes a village to raise a child, and for every child who fails to be given a life worth living, every member of that village bears some blame. Suicide is mostly at home in silence – in the hidden corners and closed wardrobes of the family home. It is right, therefore, that so many organisations fight to bring these statistics to our attention; that they attempt to shock us into talking about it, dealing with it.

I have for a long time bitten my tongue when it comes to the means with which many organisations use statistics about suicide. I thought – well yes, they’re not getting it completely right, but at least they’re raising awareness. However, as the issue of male suicide in particular moves to the forefront of people’s consciousness – as it becomes a key argument as to the problems faced by males based on gender roles – I think it’s time to bring these arguments to the fore. More men die by suicide than women. That is – with the caveats as to coroners’ rulings – a fact. However to attempt to measure the collective misery of a group, or to understand the public health risk factors for suicide merely by ‘completed’ attempts is a statistical fallacy – and a dangerous one.

Suicide statistics are well renowned as complex. They are recorded differently across the constituent nation states of the UK and based almost entirely on coroner rulings. Coroners will, as said, tend to rule a narrative verdict unless they can be certain of the intent. Therefore the deaths recorded as suicide will tend to underestimate the number of deaths based on methods that could be seen as ‘self harm’ – such as poisoning or violence to self. More than this, even if we were able to collect a solid data set on completed suicide this would be much less important, in my opinion, than a set on ‘attempted suicide’. Whether or not an attempt on one’s life is completed, and leads to death, tells us nothing. If we are attempting to measure distress, or work out ways to prevent suicide, then our focus should be on all those who attempt to take their own lives.

I know at this point that some would argue that ‘completion’ is a sign of intent. In other words that those who attempt to take their lives, and do not complete it, were ‘not as serious’. In my opinion this is not only factually impossible to prove, but very dangerous. No one outside the mind of the person who makes an attempt on their life can, or should try to, class how ‘serious’ that attempt was. It is true that people can use methods that could be used to take life for self harm – poisoning (overdose) being the most obvious example. However individuals, and professionals, know the difference between those two things. Taking one’s life requires a fair amount of knowledge, timing and chance. To imply that someone’s attempt wasn’t ‘serious’ as it wasn’t ‘completed’ demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of how the suicidal mind works – as well as the huge element of chance in completed versus non-completed suicides.

Whether or not you actively believe that suicides that are completed are ‘more serious attempts’, every time you quote statistics on how many more men die by suicide than women you are re-enforcing that idea. As far as we can tell women attempt suicide more than men do. The reasons they complete less often are widely debated but often stated in terms of method. Women will often choose a ‘less violent’ method, such as overdose. While overdosing is lethal there is a time lapse. This makes it more likely – the chance element – that someone may find them and take them to hospital in time. Perhaps this could also mean that more female deaths are not ruled as suicide, as they choose methods that could also be used as a means of self harm. There may also be an alcohol element – more men who die by suicide have drunk alcohol in the hours before, and alcohol problems are also more common in men who die by suicide. Alcohol would subdue the natural inclination to struggle or fight off the attempt – perhaps therefore explaining the difference in completion rates.

Basically though, we don’t really know why there is such a difference in completion rates. While it does show that there is a ‘gender element’ to suicide – in so far as the differences in methods and such seems to often divide along gender lines – it does not show that suicide is ‘more of an issue’ for either of the sexes. Suicide is a tragedy. Every single one of those 6,223 deaths is a tragedy. It is a highly personal, and complex, issue. Gender norms do create a multitude of issues for men, and difficulty discussing emotions is one of them. However the suicide statistics are not the right way to make that case. First and foremost because we shouldn’t be looking at ‘avoiding suicide’ as the end goal. The level of suffering shouldn’t be that intense before we want to change it. Suicide always represents a tiny part of the story, and when we focus on it we set the aim as ‘staying alive’ instead of ‘living a life’.

Furthermore, every time we quote the numbers on completed suicide we are, if accidentally, furthering a narrative of hysterical women who don’t really mean it. When we repeatedly quote only the statistics on the number of completed suicide we are silencing the great numbers of people who attempt it – and who then have to carry on living. We are feeding into the narrative that they ‘did not really mean it’ because if they had, they would have completed it. The reasons that more men complete suicide are complex, but they are not because more men wish to die than women. We need to keep talking about suicide. We need to make sure that everyone has resources available that work for them – including male specific initiatives like CALM – but we need to stop making suicide a gender issue. It’s a human issue.

Author: Gender + the City

Intersectional Feminist digital magazine

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