Choices for women help cut suicide rate to lowest in 50 years

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Britain's suicide rate has fallen to its lowest level since the Second World War and is now one of the lowest in the Western world, figures to be published today show.

Britain's suicide rate has fallen to its lowest level since the Second World War and is now one of the lowest in the Western world, figures to be published today show.

Suicides and unexplained deaths dropped to a rate of 84 per million last year, lower than the United States and bettered only by Greece, Italy and Portugal in Europe.

The greatest contribution to the fall is that taking one's own life is becoming more difficult, according to The Economist magazine, which has published the figures. Suicide rates are high in countries where gun ownership is widespread, such as America, Switzerland and Norway, and among professionals who have ready access to drugs, such as doctors and vets.

Increasing choices available to women may also be a contributor to the fall in suicide, the magazine says. In Britain, one of the most dramatic falls is in suicides among women aged 45 to 75, which now stand at one-third of the level in the 1960s. "Divorce rates may have soared and tensions between family and career sharpened - but women are less desperate - not more," The Economist says.

Two of the methods favoured by women have also been made harder. Suffocation using kitchen appliances supplied with gas was ended when toxic coal gas was replaced by natural gas in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Self-poisoning using painkillers has also been made more difficult by a ban on their sale in large numbers introduced in 1998.

Separate research published in the British Medical Journal today shows that suicides from overdoses of paracetamol or aspirin dropped by nearly a quarter in the three years following the introduction of stricter controls. Pack sizes have been limited to 24 tablets, which should be presented in blister packs, not bottles.

The researchers from the department of psychiatry at the University of Oxford also found that the number of tablets taken in suicide attempts that were unsuccessful fell sharply after the ban was introduced. As a result, liver transplants for paracetamol poisoning dropped by nearly a third in the four years after the legislation was introduced.

Although customers can still buy several packs of paracetamol or aspirin, the evidence suggests that those who take overdoses do so impulsively without planning their suicide, using tablets that happen to be at hand.

Men have also found it more difficult to take their own lives. Suicides among males aged 15 to 34 are down 31 per cent from a peak in 1998. One of the methods favoured by men was fitting a hose to the car exhaust which was run into the passenger compartment.

That too has become less lethal since the introduction of catalytic converters in the 1990s which remove the toxic carbon monoxide. The Economist cites figures showing suicides and unexplained deaths from poisoning by gas have fallen from 672 men in 1996 to 265 in 2002.

Deaths from hanging and suffocation have risen in recent years, accounting for more than half of all suicides among men in 2002. But international evidence shows that when a suicide method is removed, it is not replaced and overall rates fall.

A spokeswoman for the Samaritans said: "The despairing tend not to decide to take their lives and then find a way to do it. They tend to act impulsively, using a method that is to hand. Even a small change that makes the act more difficult can save lives."

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