‘Undetermined’ deaths mean suicide stats may not be adding up

Amid genuinely positive news this week showing Ireland’s official suicide levels fell for the first time since the recession began, one vital point was left relatively unstated.

The issue was the number of “undetermined” deaths which runs into hundreds.

Despite the lack of attention it received, the matter is a key to uncovering the true level of the continuing problem and ensuring the necessary resources are made available to help those most in need.

According to the National Office of Suicide Prevention’s 2012 annual report, published by the HSE and available at www.irishexaminer.com, between Jan 2004 and Dec 2010, 696 “undetermined” deaths were recorded.

The figure includes single occupant car crashes, drownings, substance overdoses, and other incidents — which equated to one unexplained fatality every four days.

While not all of the cases involved suicide, it is widely believed in Garda circles, coroners’ courts, ambulance and mental health services that many cases are only excluded from the category due to a lack of conclusive information on what happened — not because it is clear they were unintentional deaths.

The issue is not simply a statistical or categorisation problem. Without a fuller understanding of the true levels of suicide in Ireland, an issue which can only be helped by further research into undetermined deaths, ensuring the resources to address the problem will not be possible.

According to the official suicide/undetermined deaths breakdown, between 2004 and 2010, a total of 3,425 people, officially died by taking their own lives.

The startling figure includes 493 deaths in 2004, 481 in 2005, 460 in 2006, 458 in 2007, 506 in 2008, 552 in 2009, and 495 in 2010.

During the same period there were 696 undetermined deaths, including 81 in 2004, 134 in 2005, 82 in 2006, 119 in 2007, 83 in 2008, 74 in 2009, and 123 in 2010.

When the official suicide rates are taken, solely, the 2010 figure was the first indication there had been a drop in levels since the recession began (506 cases in 2008 to 495 in 2010).

However, when the undetermined deaths are included, no fall exists (589 cases in 2008 to 618 cases in 2010).

Great leaps forward in how Ireland approaches the plight of suicide have been achieved in recent years, with the social stigma surrounding the issue slowly, but surely, falling away since the act ceased to be considered illegal — and therefore criminal — in 1993.

However, this improved understanding of the serious mental health issue can only go so far when official figures, for understandable reasons, are only capturing part of the picture.

More research is needed by essential groups like the National Office of Suicide Prevention and the National Suicide Research Foundation to help clarify when an undetermined death really is an accident, and when it is something far more disconcerting.

Until this happens, the suicide rates might be going down on paper, but they will be tempered by the suspicion they remain high in reality.

www.nsrf.ie

*Further information is available from www.nsrf.ie, www.nosp.ie, and www.letsomeoneknow.ie.

For support log on to www.console.ie, or call 1800 201 890; www.aware.ie or 1890 303 302; www.1life.ie or 1800 247 100; or www.hse.ie or 1800 742 745 (between 6pm and 10pm).

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