Recessions can bring about increased job loss or job instability, which in turn leads to feelings of hopelessness, loss, and even depression. Whether we’re in a recession or something larger, you know it’s bad when Time magazine decides to run a piece connecting an economic downturn to a spike in the suicide rate.
Outside of the Great Depression of the 1930s, there’s little correlation between a recession and a suicide spike. There hasn’t been a lot of research to look at the connection between the two. The problem is that a suicide attempt is often not reported to anyone, and there are far more attempts than there are completed suicides:
There are roughly 32,000 suicides every year in the U.S., almost twice the 18,000 homicides recorded each year. Even these figures are just a hint of the nation’s psychic pain. There are an estimated 800,000 attempted suicides every year, with the elderly and teenagers or college-age kids the most vulnerable. And survivors — currently numbering somewhere between 10 and 20 million — are at a higher risk for subsequent attempts.
The research paints an interesting picture. A Finland study of that country’s economic downturn in the early 1990s (Ostamo et al., 2001) found that indeed unemployment rates among suicide attempters were higher than those of the general population. This study suggests that, unsurprisingly, anything that can affect our mood — such as losing our job — can increase depressive feelings. And suicide is a not-uncommon symptom of depression. These findings are replicated on a U.S. population as well (though not during an economic downturn) (Kalist et al,, 2007).
An study by the same primary author (Ostamo & Lönnqvist, 2001), using estimated data instead of actual patient reports from suicide attempters, found no correlation between the same economic downturn in Finland and suicide attempts. It may be that the current methods of collecting population data on suicide attempters is generally not sensitive enough to catch smaller spikes in suicide attempts during an economic downturn (or that there was no increase in suicide attempts during the downturn).
Finland and other similar European countries are common places to study population-based trends, because their health records on their people are generally more comprehensive and substantive, and span a person’s entire lifespan. But culturally, people from Finland might approach issues like suicide differently than Americans, so there may be a cultural bias to any findings done in another country.
An alternative hypothesis is offered by Kposowa (2003) for why there may be a connection between unemployment and suicide:
The primary limitation in this conceptualization of employment status is that it fails to take into account people who are jobless, but have become discouraged in the labor market and have given up looking for work. These “discouraged workers” number is never known, but in periods of severe and sustained economic downturns, it is never negligible especially among racial/ethnic minorities and other marginalized groups.
Kposowa’s concern is interesting, since population studies rarely take into account or examine who exactly is attempting or successfully committing suicide. Future studies would provide us with better information if researchers could examine additional factors and characteristics around the groups of people. Those who became jobless due to a recession, versus the more chronically unemployed. Those who have been discouraged from finding new work versus those still actively searching. Those whose layoff was a complete surprise versus those where it wasn’t. Those who have personality factors, such as resilience, that may help protect them against suicidal ideation, versus those who do not.
There are, of course, many, many more studies on this topic, but few that have looked at the direct impact of a recession in the U.S. on suicide attempts or completions. More research would be beneficial in better identifying people at risk, and helping us prevent any future “suicide spike.”
Read the full article: Suicides: Watching for a Recession Spike
Kalist, D.E., Molinari, N.M. & Siahaan, F. (2007). Income, employment and suicidal behavior. Journal of Mental Health Policy and Economics, 10(4), 177-187.
Kposowa, A. J. (2003). Research on unemployment and suicide. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, 57(8), . 559-560.
Ostamo, A. & Lönnqvist, J.; (2001). Attempted suicide rates and trends during a period of severe economic recession in Helsinki, 1989-1997. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 36(7), 354-360.
Ostamo, A., Lahelma, E., & Lönnqvist, (2001). Transitions of employment status among suicide attempters during a severe economic recession. Social Science & Medicine, 52(11), 1741-1750.