New data from the Office of National Statistics (published last week in the online BMJ) show that suicide among young men has decreased over the past decade to their lowest level for nearly 30 years. Suicides in women have remained low, and in the past few years have been lower than at any time since the start of the study (1968).
This is obviously good news, and it’s also interesting for humanists because suicide is the only cross-national marker of societal health that is inversely correlated with intensity of religious belief (in other words, countries with more religious believers also tend to have fewer suicides – see Jensen 2006). In England and Wales, however, the intensity of religious belief has dropped dramatically over the time period analysed, and while young male suicides increased to a peak in the early 1990s, they’ve dropped steadily since then.
The biggest decrease has been in suicide by car exhaust, probably as a result of legislation on car exhaust emissions in 1993. But other suicides have also decreased. The researchers speculate that several changes in society probably contributed to this:
Just as no single factor was clearly associated with the rise in suicide in young men in the 1950s-1990s, favourable changes in several different factors—levels of employment, substance misuse, and antidepressant prescribing as well as policy focus on suicide and vehicle exhaust gas legislation—may have contributed to the recent reductions in England and Wales. It is also possible that the reductions in several factors, including suicide, relate to some broader societal change not captured in this analysis.
Biddle et al. Suicide rates in young men in England and Wales in the 21st century: time trend study. BMJ, doi:10.1136/bmj.39475.603935.25 (published 14 February 2008)
Jensen. Religious Cosmologies and Homicide Rates among Nations. Journal of Religion & Society 2006;Vol 8.