SUICIDE rates in the UK have reached a 30-year low - but the North-East remains one of the worst blackspots.

Experts blame a combination of unemployment and drugs for the region's problems.

According to new figures, there were 5,755 adult suicides in the UK in 2003, the lowest number since 1973.

The rate for men in 2003 was 18.1 deaths per 100,000 population and for women, 5.8 per 100,000.

In the North-East, the overall rate for Middlesbrough was 20.3, rising to 31.7 for men. In neighbouring Redcar and Cleveland, it was 28.1 for men.

For women, the rate in Teesdale was the seventh highest in the UK, at 11.5.

There were large regional disparities in rates for men between 2000 and 2003 across England and Wales, with the highest in the North-East, the North-West and Wales, and the lowest in the East, London, and the South-East.

The highest rate for men was in Blackpool, with 39.1 deaths per 100,000 population.

The figures, released by the Office of National Statistics yesterday, were calculated for suicides among people aged 15 and over.

Dr Amanda Gash, a consultant psychiatrist for the Tees East and North Yorkshire NHS Trust, said comparisons could be drawn between Wales and Teesside, where industrial jobs had been replaced by unemployment and pockets of deprivation.

"Both areas have socio-economic problems, and there's not been a lot to replace the big industries that were lost 15 to 20 years ago," she said.

"In Blackpool there is a serious drugs problem, while I have heard that Redcar and Cleveland has the cheapest heroin in the country.

"If you have individuals who are economically challenged, who are also using what they can, when they can, it is not a good combination."

National director for mental health Professor Louis Appleby said the figures were "welcome confirmation" of action to reduce suicide rates.

But Dr Gash said: "It's okay for them to say they are at a 30-year low - but that's not the case in Middlesbrough and Redcar and Cleveland.

"It has been diminishing, but the reality is, compared to other places, we are still near the top of the league."

Health bosses on Teesside and the Durham Dales have seen improvements since introducing projects over the past two years to reduce the number of suicides.