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FactCheck: You asked, we answered - suicide, austerity and the Troubles

FactCheck takes a closer look at a claim that was widely shared on social media this year.

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EARLY IN DECEMBER, we asked if you had any nagging questions remaining from 2016, about claims or facts or statistics you heard again and again over the course of the past 12 months.

We were inundated with excellent suggestions from readers, and picked out the very best ones.

For the first installment, we’re looking at the claim that there were more deaths by suicide during the era of austerity than there were during the 30 years of the Troubles.

Louise Dunne in South Dublin had seen this claim floating about on social media a lot this year, and so emailed us to ask us to check it out.

What was said

A search on Facebook indicates that this was indeed a claim that was circulated quite widely in Ireland throughout the year. It was made by anti-austerity activist Maeve Curtis, when she spoke at TV3′s the People’s Debate in Co Louth, during the general election campaign.

However, it appears to have been made most prominently by the historian Tim Pat Coogan, in comments for a Guardian article in March, and on his own blog last October, in which he wrote:

More people died by suicide during the seven years of austerity than were killed in the thirty years of the troubles.

It’s a claim that has significant rhetorical power, but is it true?

THE FACTS

Northern Ireland - The Troubles - Cupar Street - Belfast 1969 photo of Cupar Street in the Falls Road area of Belfast. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Let’s break this into two parts: the number of deaths in The Troubles, and the number of deaths by suicide during the “austerity era”.

Deaths during The Troubles

The most authoritative source for this is the Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN) at Ulster University.

For 1969-2001, the figures are an updated and revised version of Malcolm Sutton’s 1994 book Bear in Mind These Dead – An Index of Deaths from the Conflict in Ireland 1969-1993.

For 2002 until present, deaths have been recorded and compiled by Dr Martin Melaugh, the director of CAIN, and a research fellow in the school of criminology, politics and social policy at Ulster University.

Although there is no official end-point to The Troubles, the conflict is generally considered to have ended with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. For this reason, as well as Tim Pat Coogan’s reference to “30 years”, we will be treating the period on question as 1969-1998.

Fortunately, the CAIN database has already been tabulated, by the Guardian in 2010. According to that spreadsheet, the total number of conflict-related deaths between 1969 and 1998 was 3,483.

Suicides during the “austerity era”

The “austerity era” is tricky to define. The beginning of austerity in Ireland is generally regarded to have been 2008, specifically the second half of the year, which saw the Budget brought forward from December to October, as well as the bank guarantee in September.

However, Tim Pat Coogan’s claim specifies “seven years” of austerity. FactCheck asked Tim Pat Coogan which seven years he was referring to, but we didn’t receive a response. Let’s assume we’re dealing with 2008-2014.

The best available source of official figures on suicide in Ireland is the CSO, which records “intentional deaths” each year. According to that data, there were a total of 3,594 deaths by suicide.

That’s very slightly above the 3,483 deaths linked to the Troubles between 1969 and 1998.

Rollingnews - 4 TIM PAT COOGAN 00018693 The historian Tim Pat Coogan. Source: RollingNews.ie

There are a couple of things to bear in mind here. When it comes to the Troubles, there have been deaths (particularly in the last 15 years) which could not be definitively determined to have been linked to the conflict.

So the figure of 3,483 could be an understatement of the reality.

And when it comes to suicides, CSO figures are limited to deaths that are definitively determined to have been intentional, and campaigners and professionals in related fields have often warned these figures may be understating the true numbers.

However, the CSO does have an additional classification – for deaths where there was an “undetermined intent”.

It’s important to note that these are not necessarily all “hidden” suicides, but rather they are suggestive of a greater number of suicides than is reflected in the official data.

If we include all deaths of “undetermined intent”, along with those officially deemed “intentional”, the toll rises to 4,073.

When it comes to the years 2007-2014, it does certainly appear that the number of deaths by suicide was greater than the number of deaths during the Troubles. So the claim, as articulated by Tim Pat Coogan, is Mostly TRUE.

But only as it relates to those specific years.  The number of officially recorded suicides in Ireland between 2008 and 2013, for example (which is perhaps a fairer reflection of the most difficult period of austerity in Ireland), was 3,135, less than the confirmed death toll during the Troubles.

If we include all deaths of “undetermined intent”, we get 3,552, only 100 more than were recorded in the Troubles.

But not every one of those “undetermined” deaths will have been suicides, so even if we’re somewhat liberal in interpreting these deaths from 2008-2013, we’re still unlikely to come up with a toll higher than that of the 1969-1998 conflict.

So when it comes to the “austerity era”, defining the years in question makes a difference, statistically.

Did austerity cause those suicides?

Obviously we can’t answer that question for each individual tragedy.

Firstly, suicide is an extremely complicated phenomenon, often with many personal, psychiatric, medical, economic, and family-related background causes, as well as contributing factors and triggers.

And secondly, basic privacy issues quite rightly mean there is no way to examine each case and sort through those causes.

So making a statement about suicides in “the austerity era” appears to be an indirect way to link suicides to austerity, causally.

The implication in this claim is that the background of economic austerity caused or contributed to the suicides – something that for very good reason cannot be comprehensively verified.

But we can examine whether there was an association between the levels of austerity, and the rate of suicide.

Let’s check out the number of officially recorded suicides, and the suicide rate, each year between 2000-2015.

Source: For a full-size version of this chart, click here

Obviously, every suicide is one too many, and each one is its own unique tragedy. However, for the purposes of analysing a trend, the most salient measure is the suicide rate, and not the number of suicides.

This is a (very understandable) mistake that is often made by people who point to the rising or falling number of suicides in a given year as evidence of a particular external cause.

The suicide rate takes into account changes in population, and so is the better measure when doing any sort of year-on-year analysis.

So let’s take the suicide rate (the number of deaths per 100,000 people in the population), and map that on to the trend in unemployment and government spending – two good measures of the era of austerity.

Source: For a full-size version of this chart, click here

The trend is ambiguous here. If there were a solid, strong association between the rate of unemployment and the rate of suicide, we should expect the two lines to rise and fall together.

That’s not exactly what this chart shows.

While unemployment remained flat between 2000 and 2007, the suicide rate largely fell, from 12.8 per 100,000 in 2000, to 10.5 in 2007.

Although there were significant increases in both measures between 2007 and 2009, an increase in unemployment in 2010 was accompanied by a sharp drop in the rate of suicide.

And to confound things further, there was a steady decline in both the unemployment and suicide rates in the four years between 2012 and 2015.

So, some association, but some divergence, too.

Let’s look at government spending. For this, we’ve taken quarterly net government spending, averaged it out for each year, and then adjusted for inflation, using an annual average of the CSO’s Consumer Price Index, set to November 2016 prices.

Source: For a full-size version of this chart, click here

If there were a strong association between government spending and the rate of suicide, we could expect that as one rises, the other falls.

That’s only partly what we’re seeing here. The clearest trend is from 2003 to 2007, when government spending rose steadily, and the suicide rate fell steadily.

But look at 2010, when a sharp decline in government spending was accompanied by a sharp decline in the suicide rate.

And between 2011 and 2013, spending fell somewhat, while the suicide rate fell significantly.

Then again, a moderate increase in spending between 2013 and 2015 was accompanied by a moderate drop in the rate of suicide.

So the data does not back up a clear and unambiguous association between the rate of suicide and either the level of government spending or the unemployment rate.

Of course, you could argue that perhaps any decline in the rate of suicide would have been even more pronounced if it weren’t for increasing unemployment and decreasing government spending.

But proving that would require a level of case-by-case examination that is simply not possible.

In addition, if you make this argument about years where unemployment rose but the suicide rate fell (or spending increased and the suicide rate also increased), you would by definition have to accept that, whatever impact unemployment and spending had, it was not sufficient to outweigh the impact of countervailing forces.

However, there’s one important factor we haven’t looked at yet – gender.

Let’s see what association we can find between suicide and unemployment among women and men.

Source: For a full-size version of this chart, click here

As you can see, there is basically no association here between the two measures. As female unemployment remains flat between 2000 and 2008, the rate of suicide dips and rises from year to year, with no clear pattern.

And while unemployment soars between 2008 and 2010 (from 4.9% to 9.9%), the rate of suicide drops dramatically.

Now let’s examine unemployment and suicide among men in Ireland, during the same period.

Source: For a full-size version of this chart, click here

The association is striking. The rise in male unemployment from 2007 to 2011 is mirrored by a similar rise in the male suicide rate, with a sharp rise in both in 2009.

And as the unemployment rate plateaus, and then begins to drop in 2011, the rate of suicide does likewise.

From 2007 to 2013, the curve is almost identical in both measures, suggesting a strong association between male unemployment and the rate of male suicide.

This broadly reflects the findings of a 2015 study by researchers at UCC and the National Suicide Research Foundation, which found that the biggest impact of the recession on suicide and self-harm was felt among men, in particular men aged 25-44.

So there you have it:

  • Yes, there probably were more deaths by suicide during the “austerity era” than the Troubles (but it depends on what years you include in the “austerity era”)
  • Yes, while no suicide can be attributed to only one cause, there was at least a significant association between the rates of male suicide and male unemployment, especially from 2008-2011
  • When it comes to rates of suicide and unemployment among women, the association is weak.

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About the author:

Dan MacGuill

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