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12 September 2012

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.

By Steven Baxter

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.

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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.