True Number Of UK Suicides May Be Far Higher Than Reported

Illustration by Mary Galloway
The number of people who take their own lives each year in the U.K. could be far greater than the number recorded in official data, according to research.

This is because of an old-fashioned law and the sensitive approach of coroners, which hide the true number of suicides and lead the U.K. to have one of the highest rates of “undetermined death” in the developed world, the report found.

Colin Pritchard, professor of psychiatric social work at Bournemouth University, analysed coroners' verdicts and said the number of suicides in the U.K. is underestimated by 30%, The Times reported.

The number of suicides among young people could be as much as 50% higher than official figures suggest, Pritchard said.

The average number of suicides for every “undetermined death” in the western world is 11, but in the U.K. there is a conclusion of "undetermined death" for every suicide recorded.

One reason for this is that coroners in the U.K. can only deliver a suicide verdict if there is a criminal level of proof, beyond reasonable doubt, rather than the civil “balance of probabilities”, because suicide was a crime before 1961, reported The Times.

Coroners are also less inclined to record a verdict of suicide because they know families can be comforted by the idea that their relative didn't mean to take their own life, Pritchard said. So they often only do so if they have no choice.

According to official statistics, 6,188 people ended their own lives in the U.K. in 2015, up from 6,122 in 2014, but Pritchard said a more accurate estimate is 9,000. The true number of teenage suicides could be as high as 270, rather than the 186 recorded by the government.

The behaviour of coroners means the true extent of the problem of suicide in the U.K. is unknown, and campaigners say it means proper suicide prevention can't be implemented.

“It is the stuff of nightmares when a young person, a teenager or someone in their early 20s, dies by their own hand. A family will never get over that. We feel ashamed and guilty,” Pritchard said.

He added: “Coroners are mindful of the fact that this young person was in a bad place at the time and trying to get out of it, although death might not really be the destination they had in mind," reported The Times.

Young people often "do not know the harm the method they choose will bring, especially with young men who are more impulsive", he said.

But Stephen Habgood, chairman of the young suicide charity Papyrus, said: "We need to know how many people contribute to their own death so we can understand the extent of this awful increasing social phenomenon.

“Parents who have lost their children to suicide are devastated and broken but want change to prevent more families enduring such pain.”

Papyrus is campaigning for the government to change the standard of proof for suicide from criminal to civil.

The UK comes 27th in a world ranking of countries based on suicide rates, according to data from the WHO Mortality Database in 2012, with 6.9 suicides per 100,000 people. It comes below France (14.6) and the U.S. (13.0).

Lithuania and South Korea report the greatest number of suicides, with 29.5 and 29.1 suicides per 100,000 people respectively.

Later this month the U.K. government will publish its updated suicide prevention strategy, which is expected to include a greater emphasis on public mental health and wellbeing.

If you are thinking about suicide, please contact Samaritans on 116 123. All calls are free and will be answered in confidence.
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