Impact of the recession: more suicides, fewer divorces

Couples may be staying together because they can't afford to split, figures suggest

The number of suicides in the UK has risen for the first time in a decade as the recession took hold, according to figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) yesterday.

Meanwhile, the number of divorces fell to the lowest level since 1975, suggesting that more couples may be staying together because the economic crisis left them unable to afford to split. Alcohol-related deaths also rose by 3.5 per cent over the same period to 9,031 lives lost – including 11 drinkers aged under 35. The figures will add to the growing alarm about the damage being done by Britain's culture of excessive drinking and fuel fears that the recession will have long-lasting repercussions.

The start of the recession coincided with a 6.1 per cent increase in the number of people taking their own lives – the first rise since 1998, the official statistics revealed. Since hitting a peak in 1998, suicide rates have steadily decreased, thanks to a range of initiatives to provide support to the vulnerable. But the number of suicides jumped from 5,377 in 2007 to 5,706 in 2008 – coinciding with the beginning of the recession.

Three times as many men as women killed themselves. Suicide rates for men were highest in the north east of England and lowest in the East Midlands. There is no clear regional pattern in female suicides.

There were also 9,031 alcohol-related deaths in the UK in 2008, compared to 8,724 the previous year. The number of drink-related fatalities has more than doubled since the early 1990s. Almost all the deaths were of people aged over 35, but 11 deaths related to alcohol consumption were recorded in 2008 in the 15-34 age group.

A separate ONS survey suggested that middle-class professionals were more likely to be heavy drinkers than people from less-privileged backgrounds. The study, Smoking and Drinking Among Adults, showed a clear class division in drinking habits. Professionals admitted consuming 13.8 units of alcohol a week, compared with 10.6 units in the households of manual workers. Middle-class drinkers also drank more frequently, with almost one in five admitting drinking alcohol on five or more days a week, compared to just 11 per cent of manual workers.

Divorces fell by 5 per cent in England and Wales in 2008, dropping to 121,779. It is the fifth consecutive year that the number has fallen, down from a peak of 153,176 in 2003, and the figure is the lowest since 1975.

Stephen Platt, Samaritans' trustee and professor of health policy research at the University of Edinburgh, warned that the rise in suicides could be the start of an upward trend caused by the recession. He said: "Given the strong research evidence of a link between economic recession and suicide, it is possible that this is the start of an upward trend in suicide which could continue until there is an improvement in economic conditions."

Sandra Davis, head of family law at Mishcon de Reya, said that 2008's financial crisis had led to couples staying in unhappy marriages.