Suicides among young women in the UK are surging at the fastest rate ever.
Data released by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) shows the suicide rate in women and girls under the age of 24 between 2020 and 2021 saw the steepest rise since records started in 1981 – rising from 2.5 to 3.6 deaths per 100,000 women. This comes in the context of suicide among young women rising for several years.
Mental Health Innovations’ Shout, which runs a text messaging support service, revealed they had around an estimated 194,000 text conversations with 74,000 women who had suicidal thoughts as an issue in 2022.
Around three in ten of these conversations were with 14-17 year old girls and around a quarter were with 18-24 year old women.
While three quarters of those who use their service identify as female, around four in ten female texters had suicide as an issue.
“We do a risk assessment if we think they are suicidal,” Dr Fiona Pienaar, a senior clinical advisor at the charity, tells The Independent. “When a texter is very clear they are suicidal – they might say ‘I want to kill myself’ or sometimes use euphemisms like ‘I don’t want to wake up tomorrow’, we do a risk assessment.”
Dr Piennar added that there are several reasons suicides among young women are rising at the fastest rate ever recorded.
“Trying to understand suicide and suicide prevention is my passion,” she adds. “Suicide is a complex multi-causal issue but I think young people have had challenges. The pandemic was particularly challenging for them. The situation in Ukraine, the cost of living crisis, climate change; all of these challenges contribute.”
She noted people contacting their service say they are struggling to afford food, housing, heating, clothing and transport. “Not having money can stop you from sleeping and impact your social life,” Dr Piennar says. “We get a lot of young women talking about loneliness and isolation. I think cost of living issues and challenges contribute to this. People can be embarrassed and ashamed about struggling with finances.”
Dr Piennar, who is a therapist, warned stigma around suicide persists as she noted more suicide attempts are made by women.
“Men are more likely to use more lethal means of taking their own life,” she explains. “Issues around stigma are better but we have a long way to go. The top presenting issues are suicidal ideation connected to relationships, adverse childhood experiences, and jobs. It is usually a range of things. Often people are holding things they have experienced in their childhood. Or it can be around parenting. I have had a fair amount of parents struggling with their mental health.”
Wendy Robinson, head of services at the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), a leading charity campaigning against suicide, said the rise in young women taking their own lives is partially linked to “overwhelmed” mental health services turning people in need away as the threshold for support grows higher.
“From our helpline we hear from young women who are struggling with social media,” Ms Robinson adds. “Social media can provide guidance, inspiration, and motivation but if you are struggling, it can compound your issues. Body image issues or eating disorders can lead to self harm as a release and that can lead to suicide.”
She said women struggling with their mental health may resort to something they deem to be an unhealthy coping strategy and be hard on themselves for doing so – subsequently falling into a “vicious loop”.
Ms Robinson argued a “corrosive atmosphere” of misogyny could be linked to young women killing themselves as she warned “it is not a level playing field for women”.
”It is really important when we look at people’s mental health that we don’t over-personalise it,” she reflects. “We have to accept we are living in chaotic and frightening times. We are bombarded with bad news left, right and centre. We struggle in a context. It’s not all in our heads – there is plenty to feel unhappy about.”
Ms Robinson raised concerns young women pursuing help for mental health issues might be seen as “attention seeking” but noted sometimes people seek attention because they are struggling.
“We have done a good job of highlighting the risk factors of suicide for men but we are seeing it as a male problem rather than as a human problem,” she explains. “We know with suicide, depression is a major factor and we know depression disproportionately affects women. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Suicide thrives in the dark, it gets a grip on you when you keep your suicidal thoughts to yourself.”
Suicide is the leading killer of men under 50, with men making up around three quarters of the total number of suicides in England and Wales last year.
Chloe Witcombe-Farr, a suicide survivor, has first-hand experience of these issues. “Back in October 2020, just after the second lockdown hit, I was in a really dark place,” the 26-year-old tells The Independent. “Being the person everyone came to for advice – the strong one who knows what to say and what to do – I never felt like I could speak to anyone about what I was feeling. Being trapped in your head is one of the worst places. Until you are in that place, you could never imagine being suicidal.”
Her mental health deteriorated because she was furloughed from her job while being forced to self-isolate due to having a poor immune system, she explained. During this time, she did not leave the house for around 17 weeks and became overwhelmed by the grief of recently losing her father.
“It felt like there was no light at the end of the tunnel,” Witcombe-Farr says. “I started trying to kill myself. If my husband had walked in a minute later, I wouldn’t be here to do this interview. Both of us were in shock. I’d never realised in my own head, I’d got to that point.”
She got in touch with Samaritans and says while life is not all “rainbows and sunshine”, she is now in a good place.
Stephen Buckley, of Mind, a leading mental health charity, states it is “concerning” to witness a rise in young women killing themselves but states it is not clear what is driving the rise.
“What we do know is that young people were among those hardest hit by the pandemic – greatly affected by loneliness and isolation associated with lockdowns, school closures, missed exams and concerns about future careers,” he reflects.
Mr Buckley noted their recent research shows “this strain isn’t easing up” – with the study finding the mental health of almost three quarters of women in England and Wales is being harmed by the cost of living crisis.
“Women are also more likely to have experienced traumatic events such as abuse and are more likely to be diagnosed with a mental health problem,” he adds. “Social media – which can be a valuable source of peer support – can also negatively affect young people’s mental health and self-esteem, as users may be encouraged to scroll through others’ unrealistic images, which often portray their lives in the best possible light.”
If you are experiencing feelings of distress, or are struggling to cope, you can speak to the Samaritans, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch.
If you are based in the USA, and you or someone you know needs mental health assistance right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Helpline on 1-800-273-TALK (8255). This is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
If you are in another country, you can go to www.befrienders.org to find a helpline near you.