Is the suicide rate up?

Published: 3rd Oct 2019

In brief

Claim

There were 6,507 suicides registered by coroners in 2018 - a rise of 11.8% on the previous year.

Conclusion

Technically correct, but some of this rise may be due to legal changes making it easier for coroners to record suicide as cause of death.

“Soaring suicide rates among young people is slowing down national life expectancy…

“There were 6,507 suicides registered by coroners in 2018 - a rise of 11.8% on the previous year.”

The Telegraph, 25 September 2019

Last week the Telegraph reported on “soaring” suicide rates among young people in the UK based on data from 2018.

The article says: “There were 6,507 suicides registered by coroners in 2018 - a rise of 11.8% on the previous year.”

While this is technically correct, some of this rise may actually be due to changes in how suicide is defined.

In England and Wales, when someone dies unexpectedly, a coroner investigates their cause of death.

Until recently, to record a case of suicide, coroners had to prove the deceased intended to kill themselves to a criminal legal standard—beyond all reasonable doubt. But in July 2018 the standard of proof was lowered to a civil legal standard—on the balance of probabilities.

It’s unlikely that this change will account for the whole rise, however. Official statistics on suicide already incorporated both suicides where the judgement was that the deceased intended to take their own life AND cases where the intent was recorded as “undetermined.”

So, in theory, changes to the number of cases coroners will now record as suicide as opposed to cases with undetermined intent are unlikely to make much difference to the statistics on suicide. In Scotland—where there was no change to the definition—there was also a significant rise in suicides in 2018.

Nevertheless, The Office for National Statistics says: “It is likely that lowering the standard of proof will result in an increased number of deaths recorded as suicide, possibly creating a discontinuity in our time series.” In other words, you might not be comparing like-for-like when you compare last year’s figures to those in previous years.

The Telegraph article does not mention this at any point, although it does link to another article on the change to recording practice.

The Samaritans’ media guidelines clearly state that, in reporting on suicide, journalists should aim for “sensitive, nonsensationalising coverage”.

It adds: “Use statistics with caution. Check with Samaritans or the relevant national statistical agency to make sure you have the most recent data and are comparing like with like.”

Contacting Samaritans

The Samaritans’ helpline is available at all hours and can be contacted free on 116 123, or you can email jo@samaritans.org

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