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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries
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Stat attack: To be or not to be

Some professions deal with death and mortality regularly: undertakers, priests, doctors and nurses being the most obvious. Many of us, particularly life and pension actuaries, handle questions of mortality or longevity every day. Andy Parsons, a UK satirist and comedian, did a show recently where he posed the question: should we worry more about being killed, or killing ourselves? Here is the Stat Attack response.

Suicide or murder: what’s most likely?
The best answer would be that it depends! Recent statistics for the UK indicate that the chance of dying as a result of suicide is more than six times that of dying as a result of a murder. Of course, there are large geographic differences and from an international perspective:
>> There are wide variations in suicide rates between countries (see Figure 1)1
>> There are wide variations in murder rates between countries; and
>> While the first world consistently has higher suicide rates than murder rates, this is often not the case in the developing world: murder rates can be materially higher than suicide rates — in Colombia for example.

Many insurance policies do not exclude suicide, and even for those that do, the exclusion usually expires after the policy has been in force for a year or two. A UK-based actuary may notice that, in 2008, the adult suicide rate in England and Wales was 10.1 per 100,000 population compared with a murder rate of 1.6 per 100,000 population2. Knowing the average size of the risk is only part of the underwriter’s problem: they need to know which people are more at risk.

From a UK perspective, who has the most suicide risk?
If one looks at gender, age and country, the following is apparent:

>> Gender: Males are at much higher risk than females, with a ratio close to 3:1. In 2007 the UK suicide rate was 16.8 per 100,000 in men, compared to 5.0 per 100,000 for women3.

>> Age: Although suicide stands out as a cause of death among younger lives, the suicide rate is highest in males from age 25 to 44.

In 2002/04 the three-year rolling average suicide rate for men in the UK was 18.3 (per 100,000) and 5.9 (per 100,000) for women. Scotland had the highest suicide rate at 30.0 and 10.0 (per 100,000) for men and women respectively. England had the lowest suicide rate.

Suicide methods
Analysis of suicide methods shows that there are material differences between countries. When comparing England and Wales with the US, the easy access of firearms in the US surfaces as a prominent difference (see Figure 2).

Hanging and self-poisoning, usually with a drug overdose, are the most common suicide methods. It’s interesting to compare methods with the US where easy access to firearms makes this the most common method.

How many suicide attempts are there each year?
National Health Service sources estimate around 140,000 suicide attempts per annum. This is backed up by Hospital Episode Statistics data, which show for England alone there were nearly 100,000 admissions for suicide attempts in 2006-075. Using the 140,000 estimate as the basis, and about 5,000 suicides each year, this implies one suicide for every 30/35 attempts.

Bringing an uplifting ending to such a gloomy topic is certainly proving to be a challenge. Fortunately, there is good news: evidence suggests that the UK suicide rate is steadily decreasing6. Analysis of recent trends in murder rates also shows that in all the countries considered in Figure 1, the murder rates are lower than at any time in the past five years7.

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1 Data from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_murder_rate and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_suicide_rate; the murder rates for Spain, France, Germany, United Kingdom and Italy “exclude attempts”

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2 Mortality Statistics — Deaths registered in 2008 — (DR_08) Office for National Statistics

3 http://www.statistics.gov.uk/pdfdir/sui0109.pdf


4 http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/suicide-in-the-us-statistics-and-prevention/index.Shtml

5 The Information Centre for health and social care (England), Hospital Episode Statistics — 2006-07

6 News release: UK suicide rates continue to fall. Office for National Statistics — 27 January 2009

7 Analysis of data available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_murder_rate

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Greg Becker and Piperdy Yunus of RGA run us through the uplifting news about suicide and murder