Recent findings are shedding light on the link between growing up in a conflict zone and risk of suicide.
Over the past few decades, Northern Ireland has overtaken England, Scotland and Wales in suicide rates. To investigate the causes, Professor Mike Tomlinson of Queen’s University Belfast, UK, focused on people who grew up in the worst years of “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland.
This period of conflict, over the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, began in the late 1960s and is usually considered to have ended with the “Good Friday” Agreement of April 10, 1998.
Professor Tomlinson examined death registration figures for the last 40 years, He found that the highest suicide rate was among men aged 35 to 44 years (41 per 100,000), then the 25 to 34 age group, and then the 45 to 54 age group. This suggests that children who grew up in the worst years of violence, between 1969 and 1978, now have both the highest suicide rate and the most rapidly increasing rate.
Overall, the suicide rate for men and women doubled in the decade after 1998, following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. It increased from 8.6 per 100,000 people in 1998 to 16 per 100,000 by 2010. Among men, it went from 13 per 100,000 in 1997 to 24 per 100,000 by 2008. For women, the rise was 3.9 to 7.3. Almost three-quarters of the people who committed suicide had no history of previous contact with mental health services. For those who knew them, the suicide “came out of the blue.”
The study also found that Derry, the second-largest city in Northern Ireland, had a higher rate of hospital attendance due to self-harming than eight other cities across Britain, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. The rate in Derry was 611 per 100,000 of the population in 2009. This compares with 352 in Dublin at the same time. Full details appear in the journal International Sociology.
Professor Tomlinson said: “During the 1970s and 1980s, the suicide rate rose steadily up to a rate of 10 per 100,000, low by international standards. It then fell slightly over a ten year period. The puzzle is, why have we seen such a dramatic increase in the rate since 1998?
“People born and growing up in the conflict experienced no other social context until the late 1990s,” he explains. “There are clear indications from the research that this cohort not only has the highest suicide rate but also the most rapidly increasing rate when compared with other age groups.”