The true rate of suicide in the UK may be twice the official figure thanks to an anomaly in the way statistics are collected, new research suggests.
Fresh analysis by Colin Pritchard, professor of psychiatric social work at Bournemouth University, found that for every verdict of suicide by a coroner, there is also a verdict of undetermined death.
Consequently, Prof. Pritchard suggested that there was an underestimate of suicides by about 30 per cent overall, and as much as 50 per cent among young people in the UK, The Times has reported. By comparison, the rate for the Western world as a whole is 11 suicides to every undetermined death.
Currently, coroners are required only to record suicide in cases beyond reasonable doubt, the criminal standard of proof, rather than the civil “balance of probabilities” to record a suicide verdict – a hangover from the days before 1961 when suicide was a crime.
In addition, Prof. Pritchard said that coroners are keenly aware that families can be comforted by the thought that relatives did not intend to kill themselves, leading to many being reluctant to deliver a verdict of suicide unless given no other option.
He said he understood the coroners’ motives, but that doing so masked the true rates of suicide.
“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,” he said.
“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. Often, they do not know the harm the method they choose will bring, especially with young men who are more impulsive.”
Official statistics record that suicide deaths were up marginally in 2015 on the previous year’s figures, rising to 6,188. However, Prof. Pritchard estimated the true rate at closer to 9,000. For teenagers, the number was likely to be around 270, rather than the 186 officially recorded.
Suicide charities are asking the government to change the standard of proof from criminal to civil so that the true rate of suicide can be understood, leading, they hope, to a better understanding of the causes.
Stephen Habgood, the 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.”
The findings come as the government prepares to publish an updated suicide prevention strategy this month. Figures released by the Office for National Statistics in early December showed that the rate of suicide for men was still three times that for women, with the rate for men under the age of 30 once again on the rise.