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EDITIONS
Monday, 15 February, 1999, 12:43 GMT
'Young women suicidal too'
20.50 11-02-99 pills ac
Women favour pills as an overdose method
Young women could be just as likely to attempt suicide as men, just less likely to succeed, according to a report.

Over the past 20 years, suicide rates in young men have increased markedly, whereas the rates for young women have been declining.

This has been taken to indicate that the mental health of young men is deteriorating.

However, research indicates that the reason behind the disparity could be that women's favoured method of killing themselves has become less deadly over that period.

The report authors call for a broadening of mental health strategies to target women as well as men.

Analysis

The finding is published in a research letter to the Lancet medical journal.

Dr David Gunnell and colleagues from Bristol University point out that the method of suicide favoured by women - drug overdose - has become less lethal owing to the replacement of barbiturates by the less toxic benzodiazepines in the 1980s.

They examined data for England and Wales from the Office of National Statistics.

They found that:

  • Between 1968-70 and 1993-95, suicide rates for young men increased by 83%, whereas rates for young women decreased by 11%;
  • Women predominantly chose drug overdose as a method for suicide;
  • In women, rates of suicide from overdose in 1993-95 were 36% lower than the rates in 1968-70;
  • However, there was an increase in the number of non-fatal overdoses;
  • Overdose suicide rates in young men have changed little.

The researchers said changes in suicide rates using other methods had been similar between the sexes.

They found that suicide by hanging increased by 339% in men and by 191% in women, while suicide by drowning decreased by 30% in men and 34% in women.

Suicide by other methods increased by 89% and 56%.

Changing methods

Changes to the methods of suicide over the years have affected the suicide rates before.

After 1975, the year coal gas ceased to be supplied, suicides by gassing largely used car exhausts.

These rates are now declining, which has been put down to the introduction of catalytic converters.

Dr Gunnell and colleagues said: "These data show that part of the recent divergence in overall male and female suicide rates may be because the method of suicide favoured by women, drug overdose, has become less lethal."

Rates of attempted suicide and contacts with the UK charity The Samaritans have increased in men in recent years, but the researchers call for more attention to be paid to women's mental health problems.

Wider focus

Dr Gunnell told BBC News Online: "We are suggesting that we should not ignore possible deterioration in the mental health of women as suicide rates may not be the best marker of national trends in psychological health.

"Furthermore, the data we have analysed indicate that the fall in female suicide rates may simply reflect their preference for methods of suicide which have become safer over recent years (namely drug overdose) rather than an improvement in their mental health.

"If substantiated by other research, this will widen peoples focus towards the mental health of young people in general."

See also:

19 Nov 98 | Health
14 Dec 98 | Health
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