Middle-aged academics are at greater suicide risk than students

In the wake of Malcolm Anderson’s death, universities need to wake up to the need to take better care of their senior lecturers, says Andrew Oswald

June 28, 2018
A depressed person on a roof
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The exceptionally sad death of Malcolm Anderson at Cardiff Business School in February should serve as a warning light for universities in both the UK and further afield.

There is a high level of awareness and concern about student suicide, but it is important for every university leader, and perhaps every modern citizen, to realise that in most industrialised nations, including the UK, suicide is predominantly a risk among the middle-aged – and particularly among men in their late forties.

Anderson was reportedly in his forties, yet many of his colleagues and friends probably did not even know that that is the typical age of a suicide victim. Indeed, as someone who has done research into depression and suicide data around the world over the past few years, with my colleague Ahmed Tohamy, I have not encountered any non-expert in the field who knows this.

We do not have detailed data on all suicide deaths among university staff and students. Yet, from the Office for National Statistics, we do have precise figures for UK residents as a whole. For 20-year-olds, the annual risk of suicide death is about 1 in 10,000 among males, and 1 in 30,000 among females. For 45-year-olds, it is about 1 in 4,000 among males, and 1 in 15,000 among females. For 70-year-olds it falls back to the figures for 20-year-olds.

In other words, suicide risk is like a bell curve over most of the life course. In my view, the fact that suicide risk is 1 in 4,000 for middle-aged males is emotionally shocking and important.

What is going wrong in midlife? What might senior university managers do to help? In my judgement, simply publicising the midlife suicide pattern would be a good start. Even in a regular university corridor, the junior and senior academics armed with this knowledge could keep an eye on their middle-aged colleagues’ well-being.

But the onus would fall particularly on senior managers to do so. Two books, The Happiness Curve by Jonathan Rauch and Midlife: A Philosophical Guide by Kieran Setiya, should be required reading for them; both document fascinating data and interviews. By the same token, senior managers should watch out for their own feelings of midlife unhappiness and stress. Such feelings are normal.

While this month’s inquest into his death heard that Anderson’s suicide came after he was asked by university managers to mark 418 exam papers in 20 days, I do not believe that suicide victims are rationally choosing an appropriate course of action. Perhaps that is true for the very old with horrible illnesses; there is indeed a spike in this kind of suicide right at the end of life. Yet humans have mood swings and many people eventually recover very considerably from depressive feelings. Indeed, this might all be predominantly biological: a 2013 study in which I participated, published in the journal PNAS, found that great apes, too, have a midlife psychological nadir. Most midlife suicide victims simply needed temporary support.

It is therefore wrong to take the attitude that “life is tough, and we all have to get used to that”. I have heard such views expressed by older professors with comfortable lives. But today, we live in the safest, healthiest, richest era in history; the fact that people are still taking their own lives in Western countries is a sign that something is going needlessly wrong.

Although it would be hard to prove, my observation of university life since the 1970s is that it has become psychologically unhealthy and status-obsessed. When I was starting out as a lecturer there was concern about journal rankings, but most people were interested primarily in discovering important ideas and being caring teachers. There were lots of ways to rank people; there was heterogeneity in what counted as making a contribution.

Now everyone thinks they have to compete in the same narrow avenues, revolving around bibliometrics and student satisfaction scores. There is an obsession with journal names and many people feel worthless. It is almost as though we have consciously designed a system to maximise stress and fear. That is dangerous, muddle-headed and against the spirit of universities. 

Andrew Oswald is professor of economics and behavioural science at the University of Warwick.

  • If you're having suicidal thoughts or feel you need to talk to someone, a free helpline is available round the clock in the UK on 116123 or you can email jo@samaritans.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: The perils of middle age

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Reader's comments (3)

Once again, Andrew Oswald has got to the heart of the problem. Academic life is so competitive that for most there will be a constant struggle against feeling a failure even if one's career path is excellent. One of many causes is the need to progress to higher grades because the salary has fallen behind inflation. Thus, as staff members start families and buy houses they need a larger income. There is also an obsession with youth to a greater degree than previously. One of my ex-colleagues moved from an office near me to a chair at 37 whereas I entered my current department as a lecturer at that age. A top academic career in a high-ranking university is no-longer one in which you can make any mistakes, have any experience of another career or have anything unfortunate happen to you in life. Since we cannot control everything, there will be unforeseen events and these will potentially cause stress. However, one should never forget that at its heart, the academic life is still one with more freedom than most and one should seek help rather than committing suicide since from that there is no comeback.
PS. On a lighter note, I am pleased to see that I have passed the age of highest risk and so in a few years should get to draw my reduced USS pension! :)
Hmmm. Andrew Oswald is quite correct to point to this general reality: in the UK, the statistically average 47-year-old man is FIVE TIMES AS LIKELY to commit suicide (24.8 per 100,000) as the average 18-year-old woman (4.7 per 100,000). But we do need to be careful, not least because these statistics often paint quite contrasting figures and can be interpreted in widely (even wildly) different ways; but also because no-one is average and the devil often lies in the detail. As the Office of National Statistics recently showed, the rate of HE student deaths by suicide (even for the spike of 2017, which at 95 deaths means 4.7 student suicides in HE per 100,000) is actually LOWER than the national average for their age cohort (which stands around 6 per 100,000). At the same time, while there are presently no dedicated statistics for 'university lecturers', these come under the ‘science, research and engineering’ (professional) category, in which suicide rates for men are only 50% of the general national average, and for women are 85% of the general national average. In this regard, university lecturers seem to buck the general trend (that is, that men commit suicide SIGNIFICANTLY more than women), but are in line with the overall pattern that higher levels of education (especially when used as part of work) give for significantly lower suicide rates. That said, even within single professions, one of the other major variables seems to be people's control over their work environment: all other things being equal, senior managers, skilled professionals in charge of their own work, etc. tend to have lower suicide rates, whereas their subordinates have higher rates. Other indicators, such as loss of control over domestic life through divorce, widowhood and loss of property, point in the same direction. I guess then that the prima facie takeaway message here seems to be that university life is generally protective for both academic staff and students in terms of suicide rates, but much depends on the degree to which people's lives and work are within their own control.

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