Sociodemographic inequalities of dying by suicide

Reducing the number of people who die by suicide is of paramount importance. Every death from suicide is a tragedy, and behind every statistic is an individual, a family, and a community devastated by their loss. Today we have produced analysis estimating the rates of suicide by sociodemographic characteristics to understand which groups of people are at the highest risk. Here, Isobel Ward explains the research and why it is so important.

Suicide affects individuals, families, friends and society. It is a major public health concern, with over 5,000 suicides annually registered in England and Wales alone. Cross-government suicide prevention plans are in place in every local area of the UK and at the heart of these plans should be an understanding of an area’s demographics and the specific needs of its population. The analysis we have released will add further insight to what sociodemographic characteristics may increase the risk of suicide.

Why is this analysis important?

Until today the ONS has been releasing suicide rates broken down by sex and age-group using death registrations data. This provides key information and has played a crucial role in identifying the groups with the highest rate of suicide, namely men aged 45- to 54-years. However, this work is limited as it does not allow further breakdowns of other characteristics which we know are important risk factors for dying by suicide, such as ethnicity and socioeconomic status.

Today we have published work estimating rates of suicide using death registration data linked to 2011 Census. From the census we have linked information on ethnicity, partnership status, disability status, socioeconomic status, religion, region, and armed forces status. For the first time this allows us to estimate the rates of suicide across these groups, and to explore the independent association of different sociodemographic characteristics with suicide on a population level. This analysis will have important implications for understanding the groups who are most at risk of suicide in England and Wales and the results will support suicide prevention strategies in these groups. 

What do our results show?

Our work shows that the highest rates of suicide were in disabled men aged 40- to 50- years. Overall, the rates were lower in women compared to men, however disabled women had a higher rate of suicide than non-disabled women. When adjusting for other factors, the risk of suicide for disabled people remains elevated compared with non-disabled people indicating that other characteristics such as socioeconomic status are not driving this difference, and disability status itself is independently associated with the risk of dying by suicide. We also report high estimated rates of suicide in people who are long term unemployed or who have never worked, and in those who belong to certain religious groups.

Why have we used 2011 Census data?

To produce a rigorous population-based cohort study of adults, several years follow up is required from the start of the study. All deaths by suicide are certified by a coroner and cannot be registered until an inquest is completed. This results in a delay between the date the death occurred and the date of registration. In 2021 the average delay for England was 180 days and Wales was 291 days. Therefore, we do not yet have sufficient data to replicate this analysis using suicides since the date of Census 2021. In the future, further analysis will replicate the work done in this release using Census 2021 data to validate this work and update our results.

Where to go for help?

If you are struggling to cope, please call Samaritans free on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email or visit the Samaritans website to find details of the nearest branch. Samaritans is available round the clock, every single day of the year, providing a safe place for anyone struggling to cope, whoever they are, however they feel, whatever life has done to them. You can also contact other sources of support, such as those listed on the NHS help for suicidal thoughts webpage.

If you are a journalist covering a suicide-related issue, please consider following the Samaritans’ media guidelines on the reporting of suicide because of the potentially damaging consequences of irresponsible reporting. In particular, the guidelines advise on terminology and include links to sources of support for anyone affected by the themes in the article.