Analysing fourteen years of official figures for suicide from the Central Statistics Office, the RTÉ Investigations Unit has examined some of the misconceptions and realities of one of Ireland’s most intractable social problems. Detailed figures broken down by age, gender, employment status and geographical location paint a picture of who and where people appear to be at higher risk.
In recent years, there has been no shortage of reports claiming Ireland is in the midst of an ‘epidemic’ of suicide, with the economic recession frequently being blamed. Yet the statistics show a suicide rate that has stabilised, and in some years has even fallen. The figures nonetheless remain high with almost 7,000 people taking their own lives since 2000.
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A link between the collapse of the Celtic Tiger and an increase in suicide has been repeatedly made over recent years. Job losses and mortgage arrears have all been cited as contributing to a supposed ‘epidemic’ of suicide. Surprisingly, the rate of suicide has not followed this narrative. The rate of suicide in 2000 was 12.8 deaths per 100,000 population. Yet by 2012, the figure was down to 11.8. The problem actually hit its peak in 2001 when the rate was 13.5. The link between economic factors and suicide simply is not that clear cut.
There are remarkable geographical variations in suicide rates between different counties and even within the counties themselves. The lowest average rate recorded in the period between 2000 and 2013 was a yearly average of 6.7 suicides per 100,000 in Dublin’s Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown area, one of the country's wealthiest regions. The highest average rates recorded were in Limerick City and Cork City, where the rates were 16.7 and 18.5 respectively. High rates were also recorded in Counties Offaly and Wexford but the numbers can fluctuate dramatically from year to year.
i Hover over counties to see rates per 100,000 and use the slider to move from year to year
Suicide rates vary across the provinces as well. The national average yearly rate is 11.8 per 100,000 persons for the Republic of Ireland. Both Connacht and the three counties of Ulster fall exactly in line with expectations. The twelve counties of Leinster combine to have a rate of 10.6 per 100,000 people, around ten per cent below average. However, Munster – in part because of the high rates in Cork and Limerick cities – has a suicide rate of 14 per 100,000 people, close to 20 per cent above the average.
Suicide is sometimes thought of as an urban problem, where the tight-knit nature of communities has broken down. In fact, the lowest rates are recorded in the heavily urbanised Dublin areas of Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown and Fingal. The other regions in the capital, Dublin City and South Dublin, also record below average rates as does Galway City. Yet the cities of Limerick and Cork have high rates so the idea of any particular urban or rural influence on suicide is complicated. Underlying socio-economic conditions may also play an important role.
Internationally, suicide statistics consistently show that men are more likely than women to take their own lives. In Ireland, the rate of suicide amongst men tends to be over four times higher than in women. From 2000 to 2013, the average rate for males was 19.1 deaths per year per 100,000 in population. Over the same period, the average for females was 4.5. The difference was particularly pronounced in 2013 when the rate for men was five times higher.
Another perception is that the problem of suicide is highest among young men. However, the figures show that middle-aged men are more vulnerable to taking their own lives. In 2013 for example, the rate amongst men aged 20 to 24 was 23.5 suicides per 100,000. Yet that figure was exceeded in every male age category between 45 and 64. The rate amongst younger men is nonetheless way above the national average.
i Graph based on 2013 data
Perhaps the most frightening aspect of the figures examined by RTE are suicides recorded for children aged fourteen or under. The figures involved are tiny when compared to the 6,995 people who have died by suicide in the fourteen year period from 2000 to 2013. However, the statistics do show that 43 very young children of that total took their own lives.
2000 - 2013:
6995 people died from suicide
the number of children 14 and under who took their own lives
The Central Statistics Office also maintains figures on how people die. The graph to the right shows suicide deaths by hanging or strangulation. The vast majority of deaths – some eighty per cent in 2013 – are by hanging or strangulation. Women are slightly less likely to die in this way, with a figure of 68% recorded that year.
While it is difficult to draw a direct link between economic growth and figures for suicide, rates do appear to be higher amongst the unemployed. It could be speculated that unemployment might cause a person to take their own life, but equally important factors like mental health could make a person less likely to have a job. For 2013, 21.2 per cent of suicides were amongst the unemployed while the jobless rate averaged out at 12.9%.