By Rachel Lankester
I often see shocking menopause statistics or ‘facts’ quoted in the media that fail to provide a source for the figures. One of these ‘facts’ is the link between menopause and suicide. The general premise is that suicide rates significantly increase around menopause age, and that the highest rate of suicide amongst women is those around menopause age, thus demonstrating how awful menopause therefore is.
The extrapolated data used for many of the menopause suicide claims is from the Office for National Statistics. See the chart below.
The age range 45 to 54 is the highest peak. The Samaritans, “the only organisation that collates suicide statistics for the UK, its nations, and the Republic of Ireland” does not attribute these figures to menopause. Yet, do a search and you get comments like this:
“Diane Danzebrink, who runs Menopause Support, said it was “no coincidence” that figures published by the Samaritans showed the highest rate of suicide among women was between the ages of 45 to 54. “The vast majority of women will be peri-menopausal by the age of 45, the average age of menopause is 51. It’s become absolutely clear to those who work and campaign and advocate in this area that this is simply not a coincidence.” BBC 12 November 2021
Carolyn Harris MP and Penny Lancaster (paywall) wrote about the correlation they saw between menopause, depression and suicide. They quoted a 16-fold increase in depression in women aged 45-52 and a “staggering” 7-fold (700%) increase in suicide in women aged 40-50. As the ONS figures suggest a slightly less shocking increase of 48% when comparing women aged 45-49 (rate of 6.9 per 100,000 population) to women aged 20-24 (rate of 5.0 per 100,000 population), it is not clear how they obtained these figures and no sources were given.
Women (and men) want better information about menopause, not frightening headlines. These shocking claims may get reactions, and be more likely to increase web traffic, but misleading information can undermine the integrity of those associated with them and the discussion itself. As the old adage goes: correlation does not equal causation.
To use the correlation between menopause age and an increased rate of suicide to make a point without providing wider context, damages both the menopause discussion and the work of those dedicated to highlighting the social and economic factors relating to suicide and supporting those most at risk.
Just a simple glance at the above chart shows that men peak at the same age and their numbers are much higher. This alone suggests that other more significant factors may be influencing the changes in suicide rate. Eleanor Mills in the Observer noted: “Research from the Centre for Midlife in America finds that unhappiness peaks at the age of 47 because it is when we are hit with a tsunami of issues: divorce, bereavement, empty nests, elderly parents, our own health problems and redundancy.”
In fact, suicide rates have decreased overall since 1981 for women 45 years and over. But this fact isn’t covered in the scary articles I see. It doesn’t fit with the story being written.
The Samaritans “monitor suicide statistics to make sure we reach those most at risk, and prevent suicide.” Their Dying From Equality report states “There is no single reason why people take their own lives. Suicide is a complex and multi-faceted behaviour, resulting from a wide range of psychological, social, economic and cultural risk factors which interact and increase an individual’s level of risk. Socioeconomic disadvantage is a key risk factor for suicidal behaviour…”
The report highlights:
“Individuals experiencing socioeconomic disadvantage and adverse experiences, such as unemployment and unmanageable debt, are at increased risk of suicidal behaviour, particularly during periods of economic recession.
The risk of suicidal behaviour increases when an individual faces negative life events, such as adversity, relationship breakdown, social isolation, or experiences stigma, emotional distress or poor mental health.
Socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals are more likely to experience ongoing stress and negative life events, thus increasing their risk of suicidal behaviour.
In the UK, socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals are less likely to seek help for mental health problems than the more affluent, and are less likely to be referred to specialist mental health services following self-harm by GPs located in deprived areas.”
Depression and feeling desperate during the menopause transition is not uncommon. I myself fell into a deep depression after I was told I’d gone through early menopause at 41. My own internalized ageism played a role in that and having been desperate for another child.
Depression is a real issue for menopausal women. Sadly, there is certainly stigma still associated with menopause. But mispresenting, and effectively weaponizing, suicide data to hammer home a certain narrative, can undermine the integrity of any campaign to raise awareness of menopause and support women. More seriously, it has the potential to undermine the work of those dedicated to saving lives.
Women are bombarded from a very young age by the media, advertising and entertainment industries with the message that beauty equals youth, that our value lies in being young, looking a certain way and being fertile. In the marketing world, menopause screams old, irrelevant and over the hill. Is it any wonder we get anxious and depressed? Creating anxiety is a profitable business. We spend an estimated £46.5bn on anti-aging products.
The same goes for the menopause business. In her article on ‘the great menopause gold rush’ in the Guardian, science correspondent Linda Geddes writes that one report found the menopause market to be another £450bn business opportunity. An industry which has a self-interested bias towards sales of products and services, which tilts ‘education’ towards fixing a ‘hormone deficiency’ and promotes the miracle drug HRT as the ‘cure’ needs to be scrutinized.
We need balanced information across the board. For example, the one study I found researching HRT and suicide, and published in 2021 actually found that “Menopausal hormone therapy may be an important indicator of suicide risk among midlife and older women”. I haven’t seen that reported.
Getting the topic of menopause out in the open has been so liberating for very many women who’ve suffered in ignorance, silence and shame. Pressuring the medical profession to get educated and take menopause and its impact seriously gets every woman’s vote. So why dramatize the data and make questionable claims?
Why are other factors that may give women better personal control over their menopause transition either left out or given only cursory mentions? Subjects such as the impact of balancing blood sugar levels, cutting alcohol, caffeine and sugar consumption, or the impact of reducing stress while doing regular exercise and keeping fit.
On my early menopause journey, I was advised to take HRT until average menopause age of 51 to protect my bones and heart from 10 years less of estrogen. I then weaned myself off. Taking decisive action to change my lifestyle and what I eat and drink, has turned out to be the most beneficial for my physical and mental health.
Menopause can be hard and it can also be wonderfully empowering. Some women may feel suicidal but there may be so much else also going on in their lives, not just menopause. Using shocking figures out of context can do more harm than good, scaring women rather than empowering them.
Let’s be curious about numbers that are used to make a point and conclusions reached. Educate and challenge those who are misusing information. In our cause we are undermined by bad information. I also dug into the 900,000 women have left work because of menopause narrative and found the research it came from just didn’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s shocking. So be curious about the source, particularly for claims that seem shocking, and check whether it’s reputable and trustworthy.
I want the world to stop blaming menopause by default for the majority of what can go wrong in midlife. Scaring women about menopause is only going to lead to further sadness and depression. That’s not doing women any favours and will not bring about the overall change that women and society so desperately need.
I forwarded this article to the Samaritans to get their feedback. This was their response: “We know that there has been increased interest in this area recently, but unfortunately there are a lot of unknowns due to limited evidence based on these particular issues. However, we do know that suicide is complex and is rarely the result of one thing. A combination of psychological, social and physical factors contribute to a person’s risk of suicide, and its important that we don’t oversimplify the reasons why somebody might take their life as it can impact vulnerable people.”