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Suicides peak in middle age. So why do we call it a young person’s tragedy?

The Guardian logo The Guardian 9/13/2017 Mark Brown
‘The narrative of suicide as the lost potential of a life yet to be lived is strong because it comforts us even as it fills us with sadness.’ © PA ‘The narrative of suicide as the lost potential of a life yet to be lived is strong because it comforts us even as it fills us with sadness.’

While we most often think of suicide as a tragedy of the young; it’s their parents’ generation who seem most at risk.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) released its annual summary of data on deaths by suicide in the UK recently – in the run-up to World Suicide Prevention Day – and the data shows that in 2016 people aged between 40 and 44 had the highest prevalence of suicide, a rate of 15.1 deaths per 100,000 people. Split by gender, the highest prevalence was for men aged 40 to 44 (23.7 deaths per 100,000 in 2016) and women between the ages 50 and 54 (6.4 deaths per 100,000 in 2016).

Related: The bold new fight to eradicate suicide

How we view and understand suicide is shaped by who we think is important. The narrative of suicide as the lost potential of a life yet to be lived is strong because it comforts us even as it fills us with sadness. With the horrible loss of young people, we are confident in our assertion that things could have been better if they had stayed around. With adults, we are less convinced. Young suicides are politically blameless in a way that adult ones are not.

At present, British society is uncomfortable with making the individual tragedies of suicide into a case for collective change. Considering suicide as a problem of the young allows us to tell ourselves a simplified story where despair is a passing personal crisis rather than an endemic condition. We want suicide to be related to naivety and immaturity and to excessive emotional acting out. We want those who die to be worthy and innocent victims, not imperfect, multifaceted beings negotiating complex personal, social, economic and political factors.

The idea of suicide offends and disturbs so much we will do almost anything to defuse it of its power. In the UK it was illegal until 1961. This legacy lives on as a ghost in the phrase “committed suicide”.

Popular rhetoric is always looking for clean and simple stories. We want so much to focus on prevention in mental health that we can sometimes ignore the people who already have problems. Middle-aged people are wrestling with the same social and economic changes as young people, often in situations where there will be no grand change for the better in the future.

In their Men on the Ropes campaign, which began in 2010, the Samaritans focus explicitly upon making contact with men over the age of 25, noting that “men from poorer backgrounds, those who are unemployed or in manual jobs, and those who have experienced difficult times such as financial worries or breakdowns in their family relationships were more likely to take their own lives”.

There is no similar campaign for women in their 50s.

In his book Why People Die By Suicide,Thomas Joiner, a psychologist, identifies common factors in those with suicidal feelings who are most at risk: a sense of disconnection from others; a lack of belonging; a belief they have become a burden to those around them; and the ability to overcome the instinct to self-preservation and harm themselves, combined with knowing suicide techniques. T

he zero suicide approach gaining traction in the UK is a shift from accepting that suicide for some people may be inevitable and impossible to catch in time. It is an aspiration to build structures and services to prevent every suicide, ending a public services culture where people don’t ask and people don’t always feel comfortable to say.

Related: We need to talk about male suicide – and not just when celebrities suffer | Richard Taylor

Every suicide, of a young or an older person, deserves sadness and reflection. Every year my collection of phone numbers that will never again be answered and Facebook pages that will never again be updated seems to grow as I lose friends to suicide. To address those things that are causing despair, dislocation and loss of hope among those most at risk of suicide requires policy change and more than a vague commitment to the happiness of all. To counter the despair, people need to know that there are tangible ways of turning things around.

In the UK it can be too easy to run out of options and choices; to find yourself in financial hardship or to feel like a burden for relying on ever-decreasing welfare benefits or the kindness of others. Maintaining relationships with others takes time and effort that precarious work, illness or changes in circumstances can erode. We pressure people to turn their lives around while austerity has removed help that people might be relying on to actually achieve that turnaround. Changing harsh economic policies that cause hopelessness seems too big a task for political leaders.

So instead, we tie the tragedy of suicide to lost potential and in the process end up as a society caring about some suicides far more than others. The UK can, as a result, feel like a country where there are no second chances – and middle age is where this really hits home. Placing all the emphasis on young people and suicide allows us to think in terms of the race yet to be run. To address those in middle age who are at risk of dying by suicide would require us to do something about the ways people feel they have already run their race, and lost.

• In the UK and Republic of Ireland, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14.

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