Sunday, January 16, 2011

Definition of suicide rate

As the previous post noted, last week I ran a workshop on working with suicidal individuals. Whenever I begin such a workshop I usually begin with a few statistics. For example I might say that in Australia today 8 people have ended their life by their own hand.

I then go onto say that these figures are conservative possibly very conservative.

The first reason I cite for such a hypothesis is that governments usually will define suicide in such a way that it is difficult to attain. It is defined such that the official cause of death by suicide is hard to make. The logic behind this is usually governments want the suicide rate as low as possible because it is not a good look for them if the numbers of people killing themselves is high.

Bike ride

By pure coincidence I today came across a statement about the official classification of suicide in Western Australia. And reassuringly it supports what I have been saying in workshops for a long time which is a good thing really. It’s always nice to find out that what you have actually been saying for all these years is actually true!

This comes from the “Occasional Paper Number 2” which is a state government publication produced by the Western Australian Drug Abuse Strategy Office. It states,

“In Western Australia the Coroner’s Act requires a verdict of suicide if the Coronial investigation reveals the death was intentionally self inflicted. If there is any doubt the case will not be classified as a suicide and the benefit of the doubt is given to the deceased. “Suicide should never be presumed, but must always be based on some evidence that the deceased intended to take his ( or her) own life” (Mathews & Foreman, 1993, p.13). In effect, this means that there must be overwhelming evidence that the deceased intended to take their own life.” (p19)

South Korea Chiefs Of Defence

In addition to this there are three other reasons why the official rate of suicide is conservatively low.

1. People do not want to leave their loved ones with the stigma of having a member of the family who died by suicide. So they make it look like an accident.

2. People do not want to leave their loved ones with guilt and doubt about how they should have seen the signs and should have somehow done more to help. So they make it look like an accident.

3. Some life insurance policies do not pay out on suicides. So they make it look like an accident.

One of the easiest ways to make a suicide look like an accident is with a car crash. I have had many suicidal people over the years say this directly to me. That they will use a car crash to suicide for some combination of the reasons cited above.

Last year in this state 193 people died due to car crashes. I would suggest it is quite possible that half of those could be “car suicides” rather than “car accidents”.

Girl vomit

We see the police classifying crashes due to things like fatigue because there are no skid marks. Maybe there are no skid marks because the person was quite awake and simply drove off the road directly into a tree.

At other times we see the police state that alcohol was a factor in the car crash. Suicide research clearly shows that at the point of making a suicide attempt many if not most people are intoxicated.

Then there is the area where suicides and accidents blur into one another. Some people are in great pain and can be feeling suicidal or self destructive to varying degrees. Whilst they do not specifically set out to end their own life they will put themselves in situations where the possibility of a fatal accident significantly increases. If such an fatality should occur, was it an accident or a suicide? It’s a bit of both and again car suicide/accidents are an easy way to achieve such a death.

With the coroner requiring overwhelming evidence for a suicide to be recorded there are going to be a significant number of car suicides recorded as car accidents. So what do you do? You can’t legislate for this. Are you going to lower the speed limit or legislate such that you can take away the persons drivers licence for drink driving. Of course for the suicidal individual such things are a nonsense.



  1. I have always liked your honesty.

  2. A bit related is: When does risk taking become flirting with death, become suicidal?

    We do know that suicide is related to social factors. We could see if there was any correlation between the social factors known to correlate with suicide and see if there was a correlation with single vehicle accidents. From here there could be derived a rough percentage that could be considered suicide.

  3. Hi Evan,

    You will have to read my book! I cover the area of accidents and suicide and the relationship between them. The line between them is not clear at times. Indeed one of the 7 possible suicide decisions is

    I will kill myself by accident

    It is these people who will not specifically plan a suicide but will behave in ways where their possibly of a fatal ‘accident’ significantly increases. So it would not necessarily need to be a single vehicle accident.

    But this is not just restricted to car crashes. Is smoking 50 cigs per day suicidal behaviour? Is being obese suicidal behaviour? These people knowingly and repetitively engage in life threatening behaviour so is that a suicidal act?

    Was Steve Irwin suicidal? I am sure if you had asked him he would say definitely not and he has everything to live for. At the same time he voluntarily placed him self in high risk situations and eventually it killed him. Had he made the decision,
    I will kill myself by accident?