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Introduction to suicide and how you can help

More than 700,000 people worldwide die by suicide every year.

World Health Organisation (2021)[1]

Suicide is a tragic consequence of a person experiencing severe psychological distress and feeling an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. These experiences of a mental health crisis are different for each person. A person may experience a sudden traumatic event such as the loss of a loved one, or may have on-going struggles with their mental health as a result of other health and social challenges. 

The National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Safety in Mental Health (NCISH), an international project run by the University of Manchester, examined in-depth information on all suicides in the UK since 1996. This research found that 72% of people who died by suicide between 2007 and 2017 in the UK were by people who were not in contact with mental health services (University of Manchester, 2019).[2]

3 out of 4 of people who die by suicide are not in contact with mental health services.

By raising awareness of suicide incidence across the UK, we can learn more about who may be more at risk of taking their own lives and as a result, break down the stigma surrounding suicide and be more equipped to support our friends, family and the wider community. 

All suicide prevention work being done across the UK is contributing to achieving a key target of the international community by reducing suicide incidence by 15% across all World Health Organisation nations by 2023 (World Health Organisation, 2019).[3] These targets are vital to drive action and achieve real change in preventing suicide.

Help do your part by taking our training and find out about other ways to get involved.


Risk factors of suicide

Reasons why a person takes their own life are complex, but we understand that suicide is often the result of a combination of health and social factors, including access to mental health services for support and treatment.

By learning about some of these factors we can become more informed about the challenges that these individuals may face, helping us be in a better position to support someone struggling with their mental health and improve the wider health and social care environment within communities.

Reasons for suicide are complex. But by increasing awareness of some of the health and social factors that contribute to suicide, we are more informed of who might need support with their mental health.

Some risk factors are:

  • Previous suicide attempt
  • Mental health conditions (such as depression)
  • Traumatic experiences in childhood or adulthood (such as abuse, violence)
  • Substance misuse (such as drugs or alcohol)
  • Social isolation
  • Job or financial issues
  • Relationship problems
  • Serious illness and chronic pain
  • Barriers to support or care and stigma

Risk factors do not predict risk of suicide at a single point in time, but instead indicate increased risk of a whole population over it's lifetime (Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2020).[4]

A person may still be at risk of suicide even though they are not in a high risk group. People from high risk groups are also not all equally at risk of dying by suicide.

To understand more about the risk factors of suicide including populations that are more at risk, visit our Facts for Action series for adults and children and young people.


UK suicide rates

Suicide rates recorded for the UK since 1981 demonstrate a slow and steady decline since 2000, meaning fewer people are dying by suicide. However, it is still important to understand variations across time, highlighting specific at-risk groups.

Suicide rates in the UK are generally decreasing, but understanding variations across time and demographic group is key to help prevent people from dying by suicide.

Over the last few years more than 6,000 people in the UK have died by suicide each year. In 2020 there were 4,912 suicides in England, 285 in Wales, 805 in Scotland, and 263 in Northern Ireland. Suicide numbers have decreased since 2019 in all nations except Northern Ireland, where the number has increased (see Table 1)

More than 6000 people in the UK die by suicide each year. 

Table 1 - Latest available statistics on deaths by suicide and age-standardised suicide rates across the UK

 

UK

England

Wales

Scotland

Northern Ireland

Year suicides were registered*

2018[6] 2017[6] 2020[21] 2019[7] 2020[18] 2019[7] 2020[8] 2019[8] 2020[24]*** 2019[21]

Number of suicides

6,507 registered 5,821 registered 4,912 registered 5,316 registered 285 registered 330 registered 805 registered (probable) 833 registered (probable) 263 registered 197 registered

Age-standardised suicide rate (deaths per 100,000 persons)**

11.2 10.1

10.0

10.8 

10.3

12.2

14.8

15.2

Not yet released

12.7

 *Year of reporting may vary across UK nations and may not be directly comparable in single year, and due to delays in coroner verdicts around half of deaths in a given year will have occured in the previous year or earlier. **Age-standardised suicide rates are helpful to report as enables us to make comparisons across regions with different sized populations and age groups of varying suicide distribution. ***Provisional figures potentially subject to change.

Source: Suicide rates are reported by the Office for National Statistics for England and Wales, National Records of Scotland and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency. To find out details of how suicides are reported, please visit individual sources as referenced in Table 1.

Each UK nation has recorded fewer deaths in 2020 compared to 2019, with the exception of Northern Ireland which has increased.

Trends over time

Prior to this, suicide rates in the UK increased by 11.8% in 2018 compared to 2017. During this period there was a change in UK legislation in July 2018 whereby the burden of proof required by the coroner changed from the criminal standard of "beyond all reasonable doubt" to the civil standard of "on the balance of probabilities" (legislation.gov.uk, 2017),[10] 

The Office for National Statistics report that it is not possible to determine whether this increase is because of this change in law; the upward trend for deaths by suicide was seen in England and Wales before and after the change was put in place. Therefore it is unlikely that the recent legal changes is the only influencing factor in recent increases in suicide rate (Office for National Statistics, 2020).[11]

This data will influence overall data for the UK as the population of England alone constitutes 84% of that of the UK (56.3 million out of a total UK population of 66.9 million) (Office for National Statistics, 2021).[23] 

Figure 1 - Age-standardised suicide rates registered for UK persons, males and females between 1981 and 2018UK age-standardised suicide rates by sex from 1981 to 2018

Source: Office for National Statistics (2019)

A positive outcome of this change was a shift in attention from blame and criminal culpability, to a neutral fact finding exercise (Geldart and Yardley, 1984).[12] This reflects our modern day society views of suicide and has shaped our language for how we talk about suicide. For example, saying a person 'committed suicide' to 'died by suicide'.

Age

In the lastest report for overall UK suicide statistics (for deaths registered in 2018), both men and women aged 45 to 49 years old were found to be most at risk of dying by suicide in 2018. Men had a suicide rate of 27.1 deaths per 100,000, and for women it was 9.2 deaths per 100,000.

In the UK, both men and women aged 45 to 49 were at the highest risk of dying by suicide in 2018.

Suicide rates for people under 25 have generally increased prior to 2018. The suicide rate females aged 10 to 24 has significantly increase since 2012 to its highest level of 3.3 deaths per 100,000. 

Despite low numbers of suicides overall, deaths in the under 25s have increased in the years before 2018, particuarly for females aged 10 to 24.

Gender

Men account for the majority of deaths by suicide worldwide (World Health Organisation, 2018).[5] This is similar to the UK whereby men are three to four times more likely to die by suicide than women, a consistent trend since 1995 (Office for National Statistics, 2019).[6] 

The reduction in suicide rates in the UK for men this shift started from 2001, and for women it started in 1993 (see Figure 1).

3 out of 4 suicides are by men

For more information, read the ONS report on suicides in the UK for 2018

As the latest publication has not yet been released (latest UK report is for 2018, published 2019), it is worth examining statistical releases from individual agencies. When the latest ONS report is released, insights will be reported here.


England and Wales suicide rates

The suicide rates in England and Wales decreased in 2020 compared to 2019. The suicide rate in 2019 was 11 deaths per 100,000, and in 2020 it was 10 deaths per 100,000. This is likely to be due to a lower number of male suicides at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and delays in registering deaths during this period (Office for National Statistics, 2021).[22]

England and Wales suicide rates are reported togther by the Office for National Statistics, further breakdown will be offered in the awaited latest UK report.

Gender

The suicide rate for men in 2020 was 15.4 deaths per 100,000, which is significantly lower than in 2019 (11 deaths per 100,000). For women it was 4.9 per 100,000, which is consistent with previous years (see Figure 2).

Fewer people died by suicide in England and Wales in 2020 compared to 2019, largely driven significantly fewer male deaths.

Looking over a longer period of time, suicide rates for both men and women have generally decreased since 1981.

Rates for men have fluctuated since 2007, with a significant increase in 2018 (see Figure 2). Rates for women also increased slightly in 2018, but have remained relatively stable since 2007. Change in UK law for the registration of suicides in 2018 may explain this increase. Read more above in UK suicide rates - trends over time.

Figure 2 - Age-standardised suicide rates by sex in England and Wales, registered between 1981 and 2020

England and Wales age-standardised suicide rates by sex from 1981 to 2020

Source: Office for National Statistics (2021)

Age

Men and women aged 45 to 49 years old had the highest suicide rate in 2020 compared to other age groups (24.1 men and 7.1 women per 100,000 died by suicide).[22]

Suicides in 2020 were most likely to be by men and women aged 45 to 49.

Looking at broad age groups, men aged 45 to 64 years old have had the highest suicide rate since around 2010 (20 deaths per 100,000 persons). Men aged 10 to 24 years old have had the lowest rates since 1981 (7 deaths per 100,000 in 2020).

Men aged 45 to 64 are most at risk of dying by suicide and have been since around 2010.

For more information, read the ONS report on suicides in England and Wales for 2020.

To find out about regional differences in suicide rate in England and Wales, and some of the factors that may contribute to suicide, visit our data dashboards for England and Wales.


Scotland suicide rates

The suicide rate in Scotland slightly decreased in 2020 compared to 2019. The suicide rate in 2019 was 15.2 deaths per 100,000 (833 suicides), and in 2020 it was 14.8 per 100,000 (805 suicides). Deaths by suicide were found to be consistently above average between July and September 2020 (30% more than usual during these 3 months). Suicide rate in the most deprived areas of Scotland is 3 times the rate in the least deprived areas (National Records of Scotland, 2021).[8] 

Fewer people died by suicide in Scotland in 2020 compared to 2019, but a 30% increase was seen in the months of July to September 2020.

Suicide rate was 3 times higher in the most deprived areas of Scotland.

Gender

The suicide rate for men in 2020 was 21.6 deaths per 100,000, which is significantly lower than in 2019. For women it was 8.3 per 100,000, an increase compared to 2019 (see Figure 3).

Suicide rates in men in Scotland significantly decreased in 2020, whilst they increased in women.

Looking over a longer period of time, suicide rates for men increased from 1994 to 2000, but have since reduced despite fluctuation over the last two decades. Suicide rates for women have increased since 2017 but have remained relatively consistent since 1994 (see Figure 3).

Figure 3 - Age-standardised suicide rates by sex between 1994 and 2020

Scotland suicide rates over time by gender 2020

Source: National Records of Scotland (2021)

Age

One in five suicides in 2020 were by someone under the age of 30, consistent with previous years. Suicides were highest for men between 35 and 39, and highest for women between 45 and 49 (see Figure 4). 

1 in 5 suicides in Scotland in 2020 were by people under 30.

Men aged between 35 and 39 were most likely to die by suicide in 2020.

Figure 4 - Suicide deaths in Scotland by age and sex in 2020

Suicide deaths in Scotland by age and gender 2020

Source: National Records of Scotland (2021)

For more information, read the National Records of Scotland report on probable suicides for 2020.

To find out about regional differences in suicide rate in Scotland, and some of the factors that may contribute to suicide, visit our data dashboard for Scotland.


Northern Ireland suicide rates

The suicide rate in Northern Ireland increased by 33.5% in 2020 compared to 2019. The suicide rate in 2019 was 12.7 deaths per 100,000 (197 suicides), and in 2020 it was 12.7 per 100,000 (263 suicides). 2020 data is provisional and therefore potentially subject to change (Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, 2021).[22][24]

Suicides in Northern Ireland have increased by 33.5% in 2020 compared to 2019.

Suicide data before this (2015 to 2018) reported some of the highest suicide rates and is currently under review to investigate an anomaly in the data. The way in which deaths are coded also changed in 2015 which has led to a decrease in the number of deaths being recorded as suicides suicide for 2019.

Age

In 2019, data on suicides show that there were more deaths by men in Northern Ireland aged 30 to 39 and 45 to 54 compared to other ages. For women in Northern Ireland, age groups with the most deaths were 35 and 39 and aged 50 to 54.[22]

This data is combines deaths by suicide and self-inflicted injury. The NISRA recommend to report the self-inflicted injury category for suicide statistics and so these statistics should be interpreted with caution.

Statistics on age differences have not yet been released for the 2020 data, but when released will be reported here.

Gender

Suicides in Northern Ireland have increased over time for both men and women between 2000 and 2014 (see Figure 5). Similarly to the rest of the UK, men are three times more likely to die by suicide than women, even though women are more likely to attempt and self-harm. This figure is higher in the Republic of Ireland whereby men are four times more likely to die by suicide (Northern Ireland Assembly, 2021).[25]

Figure 5 - Number of suicides in Northern Ireland between 2000 and 2020

Suicides in Northern Ireland 2000 to 2020

Source - Northern Ireland Assembly (2021)

Men as an at-risk group are found to have higher rates of alcohol and drug use, reluctance to discuss mental health due to the associated stigma, access to more lethal methods of suicide and are more impulsive. men who are gay, transgender, from the travelling communitiy, from ethnic minorities, farmers, victims of domestic abusve, unemployed, rurally isolated and who are divorced or separated.[25]

For more information, read the Northern Ireland Assembly report on suicides.

Statistics on gender differences have not yet been released for the 2020 data, but when released will be reported here.

To find out about regional differences in suicide rate in Northern Ireland, and some more of the factors that may contribute to suicide, visit our data dashboard for Northern Ireland.


Impact of Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a detrimental impact on people’s psychological wellbeing, compounding issues already faced by specific demographic groups (ONS, 2020; Institute for Social and Economic Research, 2020).[13][14]This has resulted in reports of increased self-harm, suicidal ideation and substance misuse, with these being key risk factors of suicide (Centre for Mental Health, 2020).[15]

Research has found that the impact on mental health during the pandemic has not yet resulted in an increase in people dying by suicide (NCISH, 2020.)[16] However, variation between communities may be masked and it may also be too early to measure the longer term impacts on mental health, and suicide as a consequence. 

Early research finds that the Covid-19 pandemic worsened people's mental health, but has not yet impacted suicide rates - the next couple of years will tell us more.

Previous research investigating the impact of the 2008 financial recession in the UK found that suicides peaked in 2010, especially in regions in with the biggest increase in unemployment (Barr et al., 2012).[17] Other research on the 2008 recession in the US revealed a more delayed peak in suicide rates in 2012 (Reeves et al., 2012).[18] These studies demonstrate there may be a delayed impact on suicide rates linked to on-going economic factors.

To find out more about the impact of Covid-19, visit our Facts for Action series. 


Real-time suicide surveillance and bereavement support

The NHS Mental Health Implementation Plan sets out an ambition that the current suicide prevention programme will cover every local area in England and that all systems will have suicide bereavement support services providing timely and appropriate support to families and staff in place by 2023/2024.

Having accurate and reliable real time data on suspected suicides is a fundamental requirement to support both of these aims and requires close partnerships across multiple agencies. This approach is commonly described as “real time surveillance” or “real time data”.[19]

Ling et al. undertook a review of current practice in relation to real-time surveillance and made recommendations for future development.[20]The report summarised a number of case studies and sought to answer two questions:

  • Can a police and/or coroner led real time suicide surveillance system lead to earlier, more effective monitoring for people bereaved by suicide?
  • What action is required to implement such a system across the UK effectively?

The review found that access to the data from real time surveillance systems supported the areas reviewed in developing more targeted strategies in a more timely way. The key recommendations were as follows:

  • Timely data (such as collected by police and with involvement from other agencies)
  • Effective co-ordination across the agencies involved to support the building of relationships
  • Postvention support services need to be in place
  • Data sharing agreements need to be in place.

Here are two examples of digital resources that enable and support local and national efforts for real time surveillance:

Resources like these offer the opportunity for local systems to gain intelligence on people dying by suicide, providing timely insights in comparison to awaiting coroner verdicts. This includes information on sociodemographic factors, clinical profiles and service involvement of those that have taken their lives. This approach informs immediate suicide prevention planning and provision of bereavement support for those impact by suicide. 

Find out more about the application of these resources in our case studies section.


Insights from the ZSA Suicide Prevention Resource Map

Please note that the data in the Suicide Prevention Resource Map is currently being updated and may not yet reflect the latest data available.


References

[1] World Health Organisation (2021). Suicide worldwide in 2019. Available at: https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789240026643

[2] University of Manchester (2019). Annual Report: England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. University of Manchester. Available at: http://documents.manchester.ac.uk/display.aspx?DocID=46558

[3] World Health Organisation (2019). The WHO Special Initiative for Mental Health (2019-2023): Universal Health Coverage for Mental Health. Available at: https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/310981/WHO-MSD-19.1-eng.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

[4] Royal College of Psychiatrists (2020). Self-harm and suicide in adults. Available at: https://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/docs/default-source/improving-care/better-mh-policy/college-reports/college-report-cr229-self-harm-and-suicide.pdf?sfvrsn=b6fdf395_10

[5] World Health Organisation. Global Health Observatory data repository. Suicide rate estimates, crude. Estimates by country. Available at: https://apps.who.int/gho/data/node.main.MHSUICIDE?lang=en

[6] Office for National Statistics (2019). Suicides in the UK: 2018 registrations. Available at: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/bulletins/suicidesintheunitedkingdom/2018registrations#suicides-in-the-uk

[7]  Office for National Statistics (2020). Suicides in England and Wales: 2019 registrations. Available at: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/bulletins/suicidesintheunitedkingdom/2019registrations

[8] National Records of Scotland (2021). Probable Suicides: Deaths which are the Result of Intentional Self-harm or Events of Undetermined Intent. Available at: https://www.nrscotland.gov.uk/statistics-and-data/statistics/statistics-by-theme/vital-events/deaths/suicides

[9] Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (2020). Suicide Statistics. Available at: https://www.nisra.gov.uk/publications/suicide-statistics

[10] legislation.gov.uk (2017). Suicide Act 1961. Available at: https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/Eliz2/9-10/60

[11] Office for National Statistics (2020). Change in the standard of proof used by coroners and the impact on suicide death registrations data in England and Wales. Available at: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/articles/changeinthestandardofproofusedbycoronersandtheimpactonsuicidedeathregistrationsdatainenglandandwales/2020-12-08

[12] Geldart, B. & Yardley, D. (1984). Introduction to English law (11th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[13] Office for National Statistics (2020). Personal and economic well-being. Available at: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/wellbeing/bulletins/personalandeconomicwellbeingintheuk/latest

[14] Institute for Social and Economic Research (2020) Understanding Society: The UK Household Longitudinal Study.  Available at: https://www.understandingsociety.ac.uk/news/theme/covid-19

[15] Centre for Mental Health (2020). Covid-19 and the nation’s mental health: Forecasting needs and risks in the UK July 2020. Available at: https://www.centreformentalhealth.org.uk/sites/default/files/publication/download/CentreforMentalHealth_COVID_MH_Forecasting2_Jul20_0.pdf

[16] The National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Safety in Mental Health (2020). Suicide in England since the COVID-19 pandemic – early figures from real-time surveillance. Available at: https://documents.manchester.ac.uk/display.aspx?DocID=51861

[17] Barr, B., Taylor-Robinson, D., Scott-Samuel, A., McKee, M. & Stuckler, D. (2012). Suicides associated with the 2008-10 economic recession in England: time trend analysis. British Medical Journal, 345: e5142. Available at: https://www.bmj.com/content/bmj/345/bmj.e5142.full.pdf

[18] Reeves, A., Stuckler, D., McKee, M., Gunnell, D., Chan, S. & Basu, S. (2012). Increase in state suicide rates in the USA during economic recession. The Lancet, 380(9856), 1812-1814. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(12)61910-2

[19] Support After Suicide. Real Time Surveillance. Available at: https://hub.supportaftersuicide.org.uk/content/real-time-surveillance/ 

[20] Ling, J., Haighton, K., Newbury-Birch, D. (2019). Real-time suicide surveillance: Review of current practice and recommendations for future development. Available at: https://www.nspa.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Real-time-surveillance-research.pdf

[21] Office for National Statistics (2021). Suicides in England and Wales: 2020 registrations. Available at: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/bulletins/suicidesintheunitedkingdom/2020registrations

[22]  Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (2021). Suicide Statistics 2019. Available at: https://www.nisra.gov.uk/publications/suicide-statistics-2019

[23] Office for National Statistics (2021). Overview of the UK population: January 2021. Available at: www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/populationestimates/articles/overviewoftheukpopulation/january2021

[24] Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (2021). Registrar General Quarterly Tables Quarter 4 2020. Available at: https://www.nisra.gov.uk/publications/registrar-general-quarterly-tables-quarter-4-2020

[25] Northern Ireland Assembly (2021). Suicide: Northern Ireland. Available at: http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/globalassets/documents/raise/publications/2017-2022/2021/health/2321.pdf

Page last updated: January 2022