I was just checking to see if there were any updated statistics yet on the number of suicides in the UK – not yet. I wanted to see if last year’s slight reduction was the beginning of a trend or just a blip. Anyway – I found myself perusing the figures, and also those for all causes of death.
We, rightly, are making more noise about the fact that suicide is the no. 1 cause of death for men aged under 49. But other things also stand out to me. I need to spend more time looking into this stuff if I can.
Suicide is the leading cause of death for both males, and females aged 5 – 34. It continues to be the leading cause of death for men until 49. But lets look at some of those other causes.
3.6 Table 2. Leading causes of death by age group for males in England, 2015
3.7 Table 3: leading causes of death by age group for females in England, 2015
(Tables from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/health-profile-for-england/chapter-2-major-causes-of-death-and-how-they-have-changed – Open Government License)
Accidental poisoning, Cirrhosis and other liver disease, Homicide. Think about these first. Accidental poisoning is frequently a drug overdose. Cirrhosis and liver disease are heavily related with alcohol. Nearly 60% of violent crime is known to be alcohol related and this is an underestimation as not everyone is tested on arrest or note made of their level of intoxication.
Each suicide is a tragedy, 80-90% of which are related to mental ill health – whether diagnosed or not. But suicide is not the only way in which mental ill health is killing us. Many people, of whatever gender, respond to their mental distress by self-medicating with alcohol and drugs. We might not think it, but that glass of wine, those few pints after work on a Friday after a difficult week – if we are doing it to help us cope with stress, to distract ourselves from our difficulties, to help us sleep (a counterproductive measure) – that is self medication. It is a coping mechanism. Just not a healthy or very helpful one.
If it is a now and again thing, and we are sensible with it – then maybe that is not so bad. But if it goes from being now and again, to every week, every night – from one pint to five, to eight. One glass of wine to a bottle, two bottles. And/or if we have no other way to deal with our stress, respond to our difficulties. If we become dependent on it for feeling ok, getting by. Then, Houston, we have a problem.
That’s just the short term. Of course there is also the fact that our coping mechanism may soon start to add to our difficulties. Financial problems, health issues, and also ability to cope and concentrate and perform well, keep up with our responsibilities, relationships. Dependence may further develop into addiction.
Yesterday I was listening to an LBC phone in around the topic of alcohol dependence sparked by the Adrian Chiles story – his realisation of the grip alcohol has on his, and many other lives. https://metro.co.uk/2018/08/21/adrian-chiles-drank-up-to-24-pints-a-week-as-he-admits-he-is-undoubtedly-dependent-on-alcohol-7864742/
Many of us think alcoholic means someone hiding bottles of vodka around their house, or homeless and begging for money with a bottle of cooking sherry or special brew in their hand. Undeniably that is how some people end up. But an unhealthy reliance on alcohol is far more commonplace, and often comes hand in hand with mental health issues. People who don’t necessarily think of it like that. They know things are hard, that they are stressed, or down. But they don’t think – I’m not well, I need to go talk to a doctor, or my partner. They think, I’ll have a few beers and shake it off. And then it builds.
For some – they use other drugs to get by. For relaxation, or confidence, or total distraction. While those drugs may be illegal and alcohol is not – alcohol is no safer. There is no such thing as “risk free” drinking. Keeping within the recommended limit of 14 units a week may lessen risk of negative consequences – but it does not remove it. And when 14 units can be 4 pints of strong lager, it is easy to see why some of us really have a much bigger problem than we think we do.
In many social circles it is less socially acceptable not to drink than it is to take drugs. We have an odd culture. But many are not just drinking to have fun. Many are drinking to cope with mental ill health. Sometimes mental ill health makes us more likely to drink or take drugs because we become impulsive and forget about risks – for instance in the case of Bipolar disorder. Sometimes people take drugs to drown out the voices or other hallucinations experienced in psychosis. There is a complex interaction with mental ill health at all levels of severity – and alcohol increases the risk of developing more serious mental health issues, and the risk of acting on suicidal thoughts.
But looking at these figures – seeing how many of those deaths are potentially mental health related – through direct action in suicide, accidental overdose, alcohol related conditions – even Breast Cancer, Heart Disease and Stroke – the risk of which is increased with alcohol consumption. We need to keep educating to bring down not only suicide, but all mental health related deaths. Not just campaigns to get us to cut our drinking – but also to realise why we are doing it, and what we can do instead.
I count myself among those who really need to change. I have got to a point where I don’t think I would act on my suicidal thoughts (as I have done in the past) – they come, they go. But I still drink way, way too much. Rely on it when I am stressed, anxious, down. Allow myself to go way too far when my inhibitions drop. And drinking leads to risk taking, and poor dietary decisions, and spending money….
So next time I am feeling the strain, or I want to celebrate the end of a difficult week. I am going to try and find a new coping mechanism or reward. Because it feels a waste to have done such good work on my recovery, to end up with a life cut short by beer.
[A Post Script btw – How horrific that the second most prevalent cause of death for infant girls is murder. Another fact worth investigating further.]