1902 Encyclopedia > Suicide


SUICIDE. The phenomenon of suicide has at all times attracted a large amount of attention from moralist and social investigators. Though of very small dimensions, even in the countries where it is most prevalent, its existence is rightly upon as a sign of the presence of maladies in the body politic which, wheather remediable or not, deserve careful examination. To those who look at human affairs from a theological standpoint, suicide necessarily assumed a graver aspect, being regarded, not as a minute and rather obscure of the social organism, but as an appalling sign of tendency of man to resist the will of God. Compare FELO DE SE. As a great number of persons are, either directly or indirectly, under the influence of the theological bias, and as the act of suicide is in itself of a striking to the imagination, the importance of the phenomenon from a socialogical point of view has been to some extent exaggerated, especially in those countries of the Continent where suicides are most numerous. Moreover, has during the last twenty years become of direct interest to the Governments of those countries where the whole-able-bodied male population are more or less under the control of a military organization ; for, rightly or wrongly, a portion of the recent considerable increase in the suicide rate of Prussia, Saxony, Australia, and France is attributed to dislike of military service. It may be observed in passing that the suicide rate among soldiers is high in all countries, Great Britain not expected, as was shown by Mr W. H. Millar in the Journal of the Statistical Society, vol. xxxvii., 1874, and more recently by Dr Ogle in the same Journal, vol. xlix. (March), 1886. As enlistment is voluntary in the United Kingdom, the alleged dislike to conscription cannot be the sole cause of the high rate prevailing in some of the Continental states. Before referring to the more general characteristics of suicide, it will be well to furnish some idea of its magnitude in relation to the category of social phenomena to which it belongs, namely, death. The following tables are constructed for this purpose. The first (I.) gives the absolute number of cases of suicide as officially stated in a number of countries for a series of

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years. Table II. (A, B, C) refers to three separate years and shown the number of cases of suicide relatively to all the deaths and to the population for certain countries. The totals for the countries in question are also given. Table I. is obtained from Morselli (Table I.) with the addition of figures that have been published since his work appeared. 1 Table III. give the figures relating to three States of the American Union which have published gives the figures relating to three States of the America Union which have published statistics on the subject.

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The first feature which appears prominently in connexion with these, tables is, as already observed, the small absolute amount of suicide officially reported. There is, however, a general consensus of opinion among those who have made a special study of this branch of vital statistics, to the effect that the number o suicides which actually occur is rather greater than is shown by the official returns. This opinion is based on the known natural repugnance of the part of those concerned to make a declaration that any person found dead committed suicide if his death can be accounted for in any other way. Continental statisticians think that this tendency to "give the benefit of the doubt" in cases of apparent suicide in the manner least like to give pain to the relatives and friends of the deceased is more strongly operative in England than in other countries,—an opinion which may be fairly considered doubtful when we bear in mind the remarkable difference between the two sets of official figures for Austria. It is not, however, maintained that the number of suicides is much understated, even in England, at any rate of late years. It may be observed that the information on the subject in any country cannot be much relied upon for years previous to 1850, at the earliest, and previous to 1860 for the United Kingdom. Perhaps an exception may be made in favour of the figures for Norway and Sweden. Differences in the mode of determining cases of supposed suicide in different countries make it necessary to be very careful in preparing "international" statitics of suicide. The remarks made by Dr Ogle in the paper already referred to are worth careful attention. He say: "I have been tempted to compare the English figures with those of foreign countries. I have, however, rigidly abstained from doing so. Those who have read the laborious treatise of Morselli on suicide, and have noted how heterogeneous in form and how unequal in numerical efficiency were the materials from different countries with which he was forced to be content, will I think, agree with me that it is at present more essential statisticians should look to the accuracy and sufficiency of the returns of their own several countries than that they should indulge in premature comparison." The tables given above are not conceived in a spirit contrary to these judicious observations, but are merely intended to supply indications of the general nature of phenomenon as met with in different countries. Those who wish to inquire more fully into the matter will find all the available information in the works of Morselli and Legoyt.

It is quite admissible, subject to the above reservations, to point out briefly, and if possible to explain, the leading features into relief by the tables. It will be seen that from 1868 to 1876 suicide increased in all countries for which returns were available in both years, not merely in number, but relatively (except Denmark, Prussia, and Scotland) to the population, and the figures for the years subsequent to 1876 do not show any improvement in this respect. It will also be observed that the figures for the United Kingdom and Italy are low, those for Austria, Bavaria, Belgium, and Sweden moderate, those for Prussian, Baden, and France high, and those for Saxony and Denmark very high. Attempts have been made to account for these differences by considerations derived from (1) race, (2)climate, (3) density of population, and other circumstances ; but it cannot be said that any satisfactory result has been obtained from these investigations, owing no doubt to the fact that the phenomenon is too minute to furnish numbers large enough for the proper application of the statistical method. Investigations into certain other points have been more successful, such as the relative proportions of the two sexes as regards number of suicides, the relation of the number of suicides to the age scale (see POPULATION) of the population, and also the distribution of the cases of suicide over the months of the year. Most valuable inquiries have also been made into the distribution of suicides with regard to occupation, with results which appear to show that suicide is more prevalent among the educated than among the illiterate classes. For the suicidal tendency in insanity, see vol. xiii. pp. 105-6.

Sex.—It will have been observed that, apart from fluctuations in particular years, the various countries maintain fairly constant relations to one another as regards number of suicides. The series of numbers in Table I. is fairly regular, in each country usually increasing as the population increase, but in several cases faster. The proportion of female to male suicides is also fairly constant, so far as experience has hitherto gone. Broadly speaking, female suicides are never less than 15 per cent. and never more than 30 of the average annaul number of suicides in any country. In England the proportion is high, having during the period 1863-76 averaged 26 per cent. In France the rate is nearly as high, though it appears to have been decreasing of late. In Prussia and most German states the rate is under 2 per cent. For further details reference may be made to Morselli, and for England and Wales to Dr Ogle’s paper already mentioned.

Age.—The influenced of age on suicide shows considerable regularity in each country from year to year, and a certain degree of similarity in its effects is perceptible in all countries. Morselli gives a number of tables and diagrams, a study of which indicates a variety of interesting features. The observations already as to the minuteness of the whole phenomenon in relation to the social organism must be particularly borne in mind in drawing conclusions from investigations which involve the breaking up of numbers already small into parts. It is true that, by adding together the corresponding figures for a series of years, fairly large numbers may be obtained, even for those parts of the age scale which, in any single year, yield only on or two cases of suicide or even occasionally none. But this mode of obtaining an enlarged image of the age scale of suicide must be employed with caution. Since there may have been charges in the tendency to suicide, in the age scale, and in the occupations of the people during the period. Dr Ogle has prepared a table (IV.) which gives as correct a representation of the effect of age on suicide in England and Wales as it is possible to furnish. The age scale of suicide in question is also fairly representative of the corresponding age scales of other countries, though in each country slight variations from the typical scale are apparent at different parts of it.

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It will be seen that, taking both sexes together, the suicide rate rises steadily and rapidly after the tenth year has been passed, attaining its maximum in the period fifty-five to sixty-five years, after which it remains almost for another ten years, when it sinks rapidly. Although no figures are given for any period previous to the tenth year, Dr Ogle mentions that there were actually four cases of suicide of children between the ages of five and ten during the twenty-six years observed. Child suicide is apparently of more frequent occurrence on the Continent than in the British Isles. It is important to notice that the age scale of suicide for women is materially different from that for men. If represented by a diagram its curve makes a smaller angle with the base line the corresponding curve of male suicide. As might be expected from the fact that females become fully developed, both in mind and body, at an earlier period of life than males, the suicide rate for women is relatively very high during the years fifteen to twenty, being in England and several other countries actually higher than that for men. Comparison between different countries in this respect is difficult, but the figures give by Morselli (Table xxvi. in his work) show that during the period in question the number of female suicides increases with rapidity in all countries. Regarding the suicide of young persons of both sexes, Dr Ogle observes that it is higher than is generally supposed. "Few," he says, "would imagine that one out of every 119 young men who reach the age of 20 dies ultimately by his own hand ; yet such is the case." According to Dr Ogle’s figures, 1 out of every 312 girls who reach the age of 15 ultimately dies by her own hand.

Influence of Occupation.—The difficulty of investigating the mode in which the suicide rate is affected by differences of occupation is considerable. Dr Ogle has with great labour worked out the figures for males for the six years 1878-83 in England and Wales. He obtained about 9000 cases of the suicide of persons with known occupations ; these he compared with the statement of occupations obtained from the census of 1881, taking account of the very considerable variety in the average age of the persons in each occupation. This precaution was necessary in an attempt to ascertain whether the persons engaged in any particular occupation were more liable to suicide than those in other occupations, for the effect due to the occupation would in some cases be entirely obliterated by the effect due to age. The general result of his labours [631-1] was that the rate for soldiers is enormously in excess of that for any other occupation. It is followed at a considerable distance by innkeepers and other persons having constant access to alcohol,—a fact which certainly suggests that n excessive use of spirits is one of the principal causes of suicide. But another reason for the high rate among soldiers is certainly the fact that they have a ready and effective means of destruction constantly at hand. In like manner the high rate of suicide among medical men, chemists, and druggists may be attributed in part to their familiarity with poisons. Hardly any other general inferences can be drawn without entering on matters of conjecture, except that, excluding the case of clergymen, the rate of those occupations which involved no serious bodily labour is higher then that observed in persons who work chiefly with their hands. It is impossible to make any satisfactory comparison in this respect between England and Wales and other countries, as the divisions of occupations in different countries are not on the same plan. It would be very advantageous if some approach to a common list of occupations could be adopted by all states ; but there is little prospect of that being realized for some time to come. It is, however rate is higher for the educated than for the uneducated classes.

Season.—May and June are in most countries the months in which most suicides occur ; but in some countries, such as Bavaria and Saxony, the maximum is in July. The difference between the warm and cold portions of the year is marked in female suicides than in male suicides, especially in Italy. This is probably due to the fact that women show a tendency to adopt drowning as a mode of killing themselves, and that there is more shrinking from a plunge into water in than in warm weather. The maximum number of suicides occurs in the hot season, during which, according to Morselli and other Continental statisticians insanity is more frequent than in the cool portions of the year ; and this has been alleged as a reason for the high suicide rate in May, June, and July.

Modes of Suicide.—The favourite mode fo suicide is England is among men hanging and among women drowning,—about-one-third of the suicides of each sex being effected in these modes respectively (Morselli, Table xlv.). In Italy, however, the most common mode is by gunshot among men, and after that by drowning, hanging being less usual. A very large number of Italian women drow themselves, the proportion being in some years over 50 per cent. of the total. In Prussia considerably over one-half the male than in England. The use of poison is more common among English women among those of Italy and Prussia. Dr Ogle observes that women takes less care than men to select painless poisons, nearly 50 per cent. of female suicides by poison in England during the year 1863-82 being effected by means of strychnia, vermin killer, carbolic acid, and oxalic acid, while 60 per cent. of the men employed prussic acid, laudanum, and other writers have investigated the connexion between the choice of means and the age of suicide. Dr Ogle has also compiled a valuable table relating to method of male suicide in relation to occupation.

[Further Reading] The whole subject has been trated exhaustively by Morselli in his Il Suicidio, Saggio di Statistica Morale Comparata, Milan, 1879 (Eng. trans., Suicide: Essay on Comparative Moral Statistics, London, 1881). Reference may also be made to A. Legoyt’s Le Suicide Ancien et Moderne, Paris, 1881. This volume contains much interesting historical matter, but is inferior as a statistical work to that of Morselli. It contains, however, a useful bibliography of works on suicide.

Official Information.—Accurate information regarding suicide has for many years been given for all the countries of which mention has been made above in the publications of their respective Governments. For other countries the available statistics are meager, accurate figures having in many cases only recently been obtained from Finland, Switzerland, Holland, Hungary, Croatia, Spain, and three or four of the States of the American Union. There are no figures for the whole United States, and none of value for any other countries. Such statistics as are in existence for these countries will be found in Confronti Internationali per gli Anni 1865-83 (Rome, 1884), published by the Italian General Statistical Department. (W. HO.)


629-1 Uncertain data.

629-2. Still-births are excluded.

629-3 Adding natural increase of 1868 to population of 1867 (Kolb).

629-4 Estimate, deducing natural increase of 1869-1870 from figure in census of 1871.

629-5 159,186, including still-births.

630-1 The figures for Austria up to 1871, although collected by the official registrar, are far from trustworthy. Since 1873 more reliable data have been obtained by the sanitary service. The registrar’s figures for 1871 and 1872 have been corrected by Dr Neumann-Spallart ; those for the succeeding years are the figures of the sanitary service. A comparison of the returns from the two official sources shows that the figures of the latter authority are (except in two cases) 30 per cent. greater than the corresponding figures furnished by the former.

630-2 1st December 1875.

630-3 2,760,586 in 1875.

630-4 Population calculated from average annual increase since 1880.

630-1 See Stat, Jour., March 1886, p. 112.

The above article was written by: Wynnard Hooper.

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