Monday, August 29, 2005

Peace in Northern Ireland has had one unforeseen consequence: a rising suicide rate

Jan Battles:

Health experts now believe the Troubles kept suicide levels in the province down for more than 30 years.

The authors of a new study say the civil unrest may have strengthened social bonds within communities and “buffered” individuals from thoughts of taking their own lives.

The research, by the University of Ulster and the department of psychiatry at the Mater Hospital Trust in Belfast, discovered an inverse relationship between suicide and terrorist- related deaths. The numbers taking their own lives fell during the worst years of violence, according to the study which is published in the Journal of Mental Health. Now that there is relative peace in the province, suicide is on the rise.

The highest annual suicide tolls since 1966 were recorded in 2000 when 163 people took their lives, and in 2002 when there were 162 suicides.

The study’s authors say that when people come together to confront a general threat they tend to think less about themselves as individuals and more of the common cause and so suicidal thoughts may be pushed to the back of their minds.

The finding in Northern Ireland mirrors other research which has discovered falling suicide rates in areas of conflict around the world. A 2002 study found there were reduced suicide rates during both world wars and even as far back as the French revolution sociologists were linking social integration and suicide.

The thesis may explain why Northern Ireland has a significantly lower suicide rate than the republic — with only 8.5 per 100,000 of the population compared with 12.5 per 100,000 in the republic, according to 2003 figures presented at a conference on suicide prevention last week.

“Where you have areas of civil conflict the rate of suicide tends to drop during that period,” said Iain McGowan, a lecturer in nursing at the University of Ulster, Coleraine and one of the authors of the study. McGowan examined trends in suicide rates and terrorist-related deaths in the North from 1966 to 1999.

In the 34-year period, more than 7,000 people died — almost evenly divided between those who took their own lives and those slaughtered in terrorist-related incidents. Of the 3,413 suicides, 2,376 were male and the overall prevalence of suicide over the 34-year period was 6.4 per 100,000 population. There were 3,638 terrorist-related deaths in that time — or almost seven per 100,000. Men were more than six times more likely to die in a terrorist-related incident than women.

McGowan found a direct relationship between the two — when terrorism increased, suicide fell and vice versa. The lowest year for suicide deaths was 1972 when 47 people took their own lives. This coincided with the highest homicide toll when 497 people were killed as a result of the conflict in Northern Ireland. The following year the deaths from the Troubles dropped to 263, while the number of suicides rose to 70.

Between 1971 and 1982 more people died as a result of terrorism but since then, apart from a brief period in 1988, suicide deaths have outnumbered those killed in the Troubles.

Now if we take suicide as an indicator of general mental illness it should follow that a high rate of suicide in a population indicates a high level of general mental illness and a low rate of suicide indicates a low level of severe psychological problems. The fact that Irish Catholics and British Protestants in Northern Ireland are less likely to commit suicide when they are busy killing each other is evidence of humanity's tribal nature. When two tribes are living in the same area it is natural for both groups to fight until one group has achieved dominance over the disputed territory. Modern society's demand that different groups live peacefully together goes against human nature which leads to an increased level of mental illness and so to an increase in the suicide rate.

Suicide Rates Up After the Troubles – UU Research

4 Comments:

At 4:35 PM, Blogger The g-Gnome said...

Adam,

I haven't read the full study, however, there is perhaps another factor at work which might explain why the suicide rate in Ulster is increasing now.

Since the end of open sectarian conflict, the nationalist paramilitaries, in particular the Irish National Liberation Army, have effectively turned on their own community. There was a notorious case in February 2004 which involved two Belfast 18-year olds, Barney Cairns and Anthony O'Neill. Barney took his own life after becoming schizophrenic as a result of being shot in the legs by the INLA. Anthony killed himself after being dumped down a manhole for seven hours and chewing through his own restraints to get free.

The thesis that you put forward for the rise in the suicide rate may be perfectly valid and correct; however, it might also be the case that the sectarian hostilities had been masking the real impact of suicide throughout 1969-1999, or else the figures now are being boosted by the appalling behaviour of the so-called 'men of peace' in the paramilitaries.

 
At 10:34 AM, Blogger Adam Lawson said...

g-Gnome:

None of your points explains this paragraph:

The finding in Northern Ireland mirrors other research which has discovered falling suicide rates in areas of conflict around the world. A 2002 study found there were reduced suicide rates during both world wars and even as far back as the French revolution sociologists were linking social integration and suicide.

In the United States, for example, you find that while homicide rates are higher amongst blacks, suicide rates tend to be lower. In fact, the highest suicide rates tend to be found amongst Asian-Americans even though they have a low homicide rate. Homicide rates and suicide rates seem to have an inversely proportional relationship.

 
At 2:47 PM, Blogger The g-Gnome said...

Adam,

That's certainly a very interesting thought, given that the Republic of Ireland been neutral since its inception and its suicide rate is now sky-high.

 
At 3:37 PM, Blogger Adam Lawson said...

Suicide in Ireland

Catholic Ireland, secular Ireland

 

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