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 College, 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 people 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," he said.Reuse content