The number of suicides in the UK has risen sharply since the recession began, reversing the downward trend of the past decade, according to figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) today.
The 6% increase – from 5,377 deaths in 2007 to 5,706 in 2008 among those aged over 15 – appears to reflect the strong link between economic downturn and self-harm. Three times as many men as women kill themselves.
Health researchers warn that the relationship between alcohol consumption and suicide is of also growing concern. A separate report from the ONS yesterday showed that drink-related deaths had climbed to more than 9,000 in the same period, reinforcing political alarm about the damage being caused by excessive drinking. A third ONS bulletin revealed that the number of divorces had fallen.
"Sadly this increase in suicide is not unexpected," said Professor Rory O'Connor of Stirling University's suicidal behaviour research group, "given that we know there's a relationship between past recessions and an increase in suicides.
"As more people lose their jobs there's an increased risk of [further] suicides. As well as the financial implications, there's added stress on families and relationships, as well as the loss of social networks to support people.
"The number of suicides that involve alcohol is very high. Alcohol and drugs are used as coping mechanisms. Alcohol is involved in around two-thirds of suicide attempts; it's a depressant and that can compound the problem."
Stephen Platt, professor of health policy research at the University of Edinburgh and a trustee of the Samaritans, said: "There has been a rise in suicides, but it is up from a low level. It may be a normal fluctuation... but it possible that this is the start of an upward trend in suicide which could continue until there is an improvement in economic conditions.
"Alcohol plays a major part in suicide. People with severe alcohol problems have a relatively high rate of suicide. What comes to mind is the Soviet Union, where there was a massive rise in alcohol consumption associated with suicide."
Since a hitting a peak in 1998, male suicide rates in the UK had been on a downward path. The latest figures show the suicide rates for men are highest in northern England and lowest in the East Midlands.