Did the suicide rate decrease during Ireland’s referendum on same-sex marriage?

Fiona Nash said she understood the suicide rate in Ireland went down during the referendum to legalise same-sex marriage. ABC Q&A

Defending the proposed plebiscite on Q&A, deputy leader of the Nationals Fiona Nash said:

…the experience in Ireland should give us a bit of direction with this as well and I understand the suicide rate went down. And that country, what they felt afterwards and how things went forward, I think we can take a lot from that.

It’s true the official statistics in Ireland do appear to show a decrease in the suicide rate around the time of that country’s referendum on same sex marriage in 2015.

But limitations with the data mean it’s not currently possible to definitively state whether the suicide rate actually decreased. We don’t know for sure what impact the same-sex marriage debate had on the suicide rate in Ireland.

Further, suicide rates are far too blunt an instrument to measure the potential distress such debates might cause for those in the LGBTI community.

Suicide and the plebiscite

Opposition leader Bill Shorten last week made the link between suicide and the proposed plebiscite when introducing the Marriage Legislation Amendment Bill to parliament. Shorten said:

Let me be as blunt as possible. A “no” campaign would be an emotional torment for gay teenagers, and, if one child commits suicide over the plebiscite, then that is one too many.

In late 2013, the Irish government committed to holding a referendum to change Ireland’s constitution to allow same-sex marriage.

In May 2015, the majority of Irish citizens voted in favour of legalising same-sex marriage, making Ireland the first country to do so by popular vote.

The claims by Senator Nash, and some others who support a plebiscite, that the suicide rate in Ireland either went down or did not increase during this period, appear to be an effort to neutralise the concerns Shorten and others have expressed.

The suicide rate in Ireland

Suicide rates in Ireland are compiled by the Central Statistics Office but are more easily accessed from the National Suicide Research Foundation. While the graph on the foundation’s website appears to show the country’s suicide rate decreased slightly in 2014 and 2015, a prominent rider above the graph warns that the figures for those years are “provisional” and “subject to change”.

A prominent rider above the graph shows figures for 2014 and 2015 are subject to change. Screenshot/National Suicide Research Foundation

Official suicide rates take years to finalise. This is because working out which deaths are suicide and which are not can often involve a considerable amount of investigation by coroners and police.

If a person dies alone, violently, without leaving a note, it may be difficult to determine if the death was accidental or deliberate. And because of the stigma associated with suicide, coroners may be reluctant to probe further once a homicide has been ruled out.

The provisional nature of available figures means that at this point, no one knows what the suicide rate in Ireland was during, in the lead up to, and after, the referendum.

Is this even relevant?

Even if it is eventually determined that the Irish suicide rate did fall in the period between late 2013 and May 2015, it will have little relevance to the debate.

Many factors, unrelated to same-sex marriage, affect a country’s suicide rate. Ireland’s suicide rate increased significantly in the years 2008 to 2012, which some researchers have argued was related to the economic recession and subsequent austerity.

If, as the National Suicide Research Foundation graph shows us, the suicide rate has been decreasing since 2012, that decrease may be due to no more than a diminishing of the recession.

From polling, we know the LGBTI community makes up a relatively small proportion of the Irish population, so even a significant increase in the suicide rate in that community is likely to be obscured by changes in the wider population.

Even if we knew the exact suicide rate for people in the LGBTI community for the referendum period, the fears Bill Shorten expressed likely referred to people who might not yet have formally declared themselves as members of that community and who therefore might not be counted.

Suicide rate is a blunt instrument

Arguably we should be concerned not only about suicide, but about the wider distress the public vote and surrounding debate could cause to members of the LGBTI community – particularly those whose views on their own identity are still evolving. A national suicide rate is far too blunt an instrument to be a useful measure of these more general harms.

Shorten was also not making a point about suicide rates. He was stating that even one death as a result of the plebiscite would be too high a cost.

The factors that lead people to take their own lives are usually complicated. Only rarely can a suicide be tracked back to a single identifiable cause.

That said, we do know that social stress contributes to the alarmingly high rates of suicide in the LGBTI community. We also know that at least some news stories cause real increases in the number of people who suicide.

Of course, it is possible that the Irish referendum could have contributed to the suicide of at least one Irish young person, and equally possible that the plebiscite might do the same in Australia.

But a nation’s suicide rate data is not the best way to measure the impact a referendum or plebiscite on same-sex marriage has on LGBTI people.

If this article has raised issues for you or you’re concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 44.