If this article about male suicide rates had merely been wrong, I would probably let it pass. If my only concerns were the critique-free mangling of Durkheim’s brilliant but profoundly flawed monograph, or if this were just a straightforward left-versus-right disagreement on policy, then I would wave it away. If the author were just another cheap hack churning out the usual propaganda for the Murdoch-Rothermere-Desmond axis of weasels I might have done something more uplifting with my morning than immerse myself in suicide statistics.
But whatever else she may be, Kathy Gyngell is not ill-informed. She has a first in social anthropology from Cambridge and an M.Phil in sociology from Oxford. Amongst several lines of employment, she has collaborated with Iain Duncan Smith on his Centre for Social justice reports and she is a key member of the Centre for Policy Studies, the thinktank which remains the single most influential ideological seed-bed for the social policy of the modern Conservative party, and therefore the current government.
I will afford Gyngell the credit of assuming she is neither ignorant nor stupid, that she knows how to read data and interpret social statistics, and can only conclude, therefore, that she is deliberately and wilfully mendacious in presenting a grotesquely false interpretation of the new ONS suicide statistics. I can also only presume she is doing so cynically, for reasons of political and ideological advantage and without regard to the potential consequences for some of the most vulnerable and at-risk members of society.
Gyngell, writing on the Conservative Women website, is cross about coverage of the latest official suicide statistics, most of which focussed on the impacts of economic crisis, unemployment, austerity and poverty. This angle was broadly in keeping with the overwhelming consensus of epidemiologists, public health experts, psychiatrists and other professionals. A report last year looked at suicide trends across Europe and North America and concluded that the economic conditions since 2008 had driven an upswing in suicide rates equivalent to 10,000 additional deaths, almost all male.
Gyngell, however, has her own theory.
Last year saw an overall 4 per cent increase. But far more disturbing was the rise and rise of the male suicide rate.The proportion of male to female deaths by suicide has increased steadily since 1981. In 1981, just 63 per cent of UK suicides were male; by 2013 the figure was 78 per cent.
The overall death toll of more than 6,000 people was appalling. So was the fact that more men in the UK died by suicide in the past year than all British soldiers fighting in all wars since 1945. Suicide accounted for over one per cent of all deaths, killing three times more people than road accidents, more than leukaemia, and more than all infectious and parasitic diseases combined.
So trying to explain this away by citing the economic crash is futile.
Yet ‘cost of living’ dominated the responses to this news that I read. None considered the cultural factor. Nowhere did I see, for example, mention of the impact of the feminist revolution, that men have been on the receiving end of, that curiously has taken place over the very same period – the last 30 to 40 years.
[Durkheim] identified three types of suicide relating to different social forces – anomic, altruistic and egoistic. They were all alarmingly prescient of modern 21st century society. The modern social contexts are, I believe , atomisation and disintegration, the decline of Christian values, and the rise of the contradictory forces of individualism, feminism, (aggressive) secularism and multiculturalism.
There are many obvious ways to demonstrate that Gyngell is simply wrong, but the easiest is simply to look at the data published by the ONS last week. Here are the suicide rates (per 100,000 population) for men and women since 1981.
If Gyngell was right, we would expect that as society absorbed ‘the decline of Christian values, and the rise of individualism, feminism, (aggressive) secularism and multiculturalism’ then male suicide rates would have inexorably risen. They have not. What actually happened is that they bobbed along reasonably constantly through the 1980s and 90s, rising and falling year-on-year but ending up pretty much exactly the same place in 1999 as in 1981. They then fell markedly through the 00s and continued to fall right up until the financial crash of 2008, when the trend suddenly began to reverse. The ongoing current rise in male suicides since is a statistical representation of an awful human tragedy. It roughly equates to over a thousand additional deaths, each leaving devastated families, friends, colleagues and communities. But the change in the trend did not coincide with the feminist revolution, no-fault divorce or the Equal Pay Act. It coincided very specifically with the collapse of the financial markets in 2008. This, as Gyngell knows full well, is precisely what Durkheim would have predicted.
Gyngell’s trick (again, I won’t insult her by calling it a mistake) is to consider the male suicide rate in comparison to the female rate, which has tumbled consistently since 1981 (if not earlier). One reason for this is improved medical intervention. Women tend to choose methods of self-harm that are less immediately lethal (overdoses, primarily, but also slow-bleed lacerations) which give paramedics and doctors a greater chance of saving their lives. However we should also accept the possibility/probability that social change and progress in gender equality has had a significant impact on women’s wellbeing, fulfilment and mental health. So if feminism has had an impact on suicide rates, it is not with respect to rising male rates (which despite recent reversals are still lower than they were 30 years ago) but on female rates, which are now considerably less than half where they were in 1981. That is equivalent to around 1,100 women’s lives saved every year.
At the most simplistic level of analysis, what has happened over the past 40 to 50 years is this: We have stumbled upon some kind of formula which works to reduce the levels of suicide in women, irrespective of prevailing economic and social conditions. We have found no such formula for men. The rates at which men take their own lives remains pinned to external social and economic forces and the provision of support in health and welfare.
Over the same period of time, we have seen a remarkable reinvention of what it means to be a woman, what a girl growing up can expect from life and society in terms of rights, opportunities, freedoms, ambitions and personal fulfilment. There has been no equivalent reinvention of men and masculinities. To a great extent we remain wedded to an anachronistic model of man as breadwinner, brute and bruiser, with our self-worth tied up in our stoicism, self-sufficiency and the whole patriarchal, protector-provider mythology.
As a reactionary social conservative, Kathy Gyngell wants to send us back to days of less equality, less social justice, less emancipation and – as it happens – much higher rates of suicide. The party she supports, it must be said, are doing a pretty good job of hitting all those targets.
The explanation for the stubbornly high rates of male suicide is not an excess of social justice, an excess of feminism, an excess of multiculturalism, secularism and atheism, if anything the problem is the opposite. The journey that women have been on for the past half century is one that we should learn from and emulate, not reverse.