Sir Donald Acheson, who chaired a government inquiry into the health gap between rich and poor published last year, said badly educated young men hit by unemployment were at greatest risk. Those in social class V were four times more likely to take their own lives than those in social class I.
"If you look at public health problems as a whole, suicide in young men, and in particular in young unskilled men, is one of the most important public health problems of our time. It is the tip of a huge iceberg of misery in our society."
Sir Donald was speaking at the launch of a campaign to cut the suicide rate by encouraging young people, especially young men, to seek help with their misery. Posters will be distributed across the country by the Doctor Patient Partnership, which is organising the campaign with the Samaritans and the Men's Health Forum.
The campaign was launched the day after a 15-year-old boy at Eton School, Nicholas Taylor, was found hanged in his room. A post-mortem examination was done yesterday.
Suicide rates among young men aged 15 to 24 rose 80 per cent between 1980 and 1992. Although they have since declined slightly, in 1996 suicide was still 55 per cent above its level in 1983, claiming 1,000 lives a year in this age group. Three-quarters of all suicide cases are men. Among those aged 15 to 24 who kill themselves, four-fifths are men.
Simon Armson, chief executive of the Samaritans, said: "It is anyone's guess why people kill themselves. There are probably as many reasons as suicides themselves but we need to understand the causes better."
The traditional male attitude to despair - to maintain a stiff upper lip at all times - contributed to the tragedy of suicide. "That stiff upper lip is continuing to prevail. It has softened a little bit but we have a long way to go before young men in particular feel comfortable about talking about their problems."
Mr Armson said the pressure to succeed in the modern world, competing against great odds, imposed a heavy price. Changing gender roles and the increase in women taking men's jobs also caused confusion for some men, adding to their burdens. "Our view is that we have to reach out to people to tell them how vitally important it is to talk about and share feelings and put them in context," Mr Armson said.
More than four million calls a year are made to the Samaritans but the fastest growing demand for help is via e-mail, the contact method favoured by the young. The organisation received 7,500 e-mailed appeals for help in 1997, doubling to 15,000 in 1998. This year the total is expected to reach 22,000.
"The messages that come via e-mail are much starker. Directness is part of the method," Mr Armson said.
A poll conducted for the campaign found most men said they would seek help from their GP, rather than from family, friends or helplines if they were thinking of suicide. Only their partner ranked higher as a source of advice and support.
Ian Banks, chairman of the Men's Health Forum, said that studies showed many men who committed suicide had seen their GPs in the weeks immediately before but their troubles had gone undetected.
"Men are not very good at expressing emotion. Part of the reason is the macho mentality. They are brain-washed into having a stiff upper lip and it affects the medical profession too.
"We can do something about it ... and help tackle this epidemic of human misery."Reuse content