We mustn't over-interpret suicide statistics - every one is an individual tragedy

New government figures show middle-aged men are at greatest risk of suicide.

Middle-aged men are now the group at greatest risk of suicide, according to figures released by the government this week.

It's tempting to use that information to attempt to further a view we might already hold, but these statistics are so much more than just numbers. Each piece of data represents a life that was ended too quickly by someone who felt that they couldn't continue. Suicide is such a private and personal thing that it verges on the disrespectful to think that we can simply package away each individual decision into a set of criteria.

Each such decision is a tragedy, a sadness, and a loss of self, a disappearance into memories of a person who had been and who could have been so much more. Each bare number represents a story that wasn't quite turned around in time, of a series of events that came together to result in one person feeling that they couldn't continue. And then there are the people who were left behind - not selfishly, but left behind nonetheless.

All that said, there does appear to suggest that some kind of change is taking place. A person's gender (more specifically, maleness) is one factor used when deciding whether someone presents a suicide risk; another is the age of the person, usually whether they are under 35. It has previously been thought that the risk of suicide was less for older people - although there are of course hundreds of other reasons and circumstances that collide in each individual tragedy.

Perhaps, if nothing else, these numbers serve to remind us that there is no such thing as a typical person who is at risk of taking their own life. It's not necessarily a young man, or indeed an old man. They don't wear labels and they don't often express their feelings or intentions outwardly, sometimes until it is too late to stop them.

So what can we do? The only thing that we can take out of this is that we know there are people who need to be helped, who need to be reached out to, and we need to get there in time. Four thousand people every year who feel that it has all become too much.

I have tried to be as careful as possible to present this article in a way that won't trigger anything for anyone, but if it has, there really are people who can be spoken to, and who can make a difference (the Samaritans website can be found here).

I know they can help because I have spoken to them myself. Without them, I don't know where I would be now. Or rather, I do.

Thoughts of suicide are not something confined to men, of any age, and there is no way of predicting how or when they might come. Talking does make a difference, even if it is to someone you don't know at all. Whether or not you are a middle-aged man, you are not alone. Never alone.




The BBC News report of the latest government statistics.
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When the world seems dark and terrifying, we shouldn’t feel ashamed to dream of Utopia

Right now, the future seems dark and frightening and it is precisely now that we must continue to imagine other worlds and then plot ways to get there.

There are many cruel and routine lies we tell to children but perhaps the most indicative is this: if you tell anyone your wish, it won’t come true. This parable was probably invented by parents trying to avoid the trauma of not being able to give their children what they want but we carry it with us to adulthood, when it is repeated to us by our leaders. Don’t tell anyone the sort of world you would like to see – at best you’ll be disappointed and at worst you’ll be arrested.

“We want more.” This week, exhausted by the news, I dragged myself out of the house to a book fair, where I came across a new collection of utopian fiction by radical women. That was the first line and it stopped my breath in my throat. When basic survival seems like a stretch goal, caught as we are between the rich and the rising seas, hope feels like an unaffordable luxury. The precise words I used to the bookseller were, “Shut up and take my money.”

There has never been a more urgent time for utopian ideas, precisely because the concept of a better world has never felt further away. Right now, world leaders are deciding how many cities are going to sink before something is done to reduce carbon emissions. They are meeting in Paris, which very recently saw the opening scene of a new act in everyone’s least favourite dramatic franchise, “War in the Middle East”. We seem to be living in a dystopian trilogy scripted by a sadistic young-adult author and I very much hope that our plucky young heroes show up to save the day soon, even if there’s a clunky love triangle involved.

Dystopias are easy to construct: to paraphrase the novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, you might as well pick five news headlines at random, make a collage and there’s your plot. Utopias are harder. Utopias require that we do the difficult, necessary work of envisioning a better world. This is why imagination is the first, best weapon of radicals and progressives.

Utopian stories existed long before the word was coined by Thomas More in the 16th century to mean an ideal society, or “no-place”. Plato’s Republic has some claim to being the first but there are as many Utopias as there are communities that dreamed of a better life. The greatest age of utopian fiction was the turn of the last century and it is no accident that the early 21st century is a great age of dystopian fiction. The ideology of late-capitalist patriarchy has become so all-encompassing that it no longer looks like ideology. Fredric Jameson observed, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” – and the reason for that is not that capitalism is the inevitable destiny of humankind but that we have spent our lives being told that even thinking about any other future makes us ridiculous.

Most leftists do have an idea of the sort of world they would prefer to see. We don’t say what we want for the same reason that we were told as children not to tell anyone else what we wished for – because it’ll be awkward and painful if we don’t get it.

When I think about Utopia, I think about my grandmother. My mother’s mother left school at 13, lived through the Maltese blockade and was obliged by religion and circumstance to marry young, suffocate all her dreams of education and adventure and spend her life taking care of a husband and six kids. Half a century later, I can choose when and whether to have children. I can choose to live independently from men. I regularly travel alone and there are no legal restrictions on getting any job I’m suited for.

The kind of independence many women my age can enjoy would have been almost unimaginable half a century ago – but somebody did imagine it and that is why we got here. A great many somebodies, over centuries of struggle and technological advancement, asked how the world could be different for women and set about making it happen.

Exactly a century ago, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novel Herland envisioned a society of women in which production was communal, motherhood was valued, relationships were equal and rape and violence were unknown. Reading Herland today, it is striking that for every proposition that came true – women are now allowed to divorce their husbands and participate fully in political life – there are two more that seem as far-fetched now as they did in 1915. Motherhood is still not valued as work. Women are still expected to organise our lives around the threat of sexual violence. But all that can change as long as we continue to ask for more.

For as long as I have been a feminist, I have been asked – usually by grumbling men – when, exactly, we will be satisfied; when women and girls will decide we have enough. The answer is contained in the question: because the instant that we do decide that we are satisfied, that there can never be a better world than this, is the instant that the future shuts down and change becomes impossible.

Utopia is the search for Utopia. It is the no-place by whose light you plot a course through a harsh and unnavigable present. By the time you reach the horizon, it is no longer the horizon but that doesn’t mean you stop going forwards.

Right now, the future seems dark and frightening and it is precisely now that we must continue to imagine other worlds and then plot ways to get there. In the midst of multiple global crises, the only truly ridiculous proposition is that things are going to stay exactly the same.

Human societies are going to change beyond recognition and from the conference table to the streets, our best shot at surviving that change starts when we have the courage to make impossible demands – to face down ridicule and say, “We want more.”

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State