US economic downturn has produced sharp uptick in suicide

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2012-11-05 17:57

Arguably, the most significant issue in the imminent presidential election is the economy. President Obama and Governor Mitt Romney have expressed their differing viewpoints on how best to spur the economy. In addition to the flagging US economy, many European nations are experiencing financial problems. Evidence from European countries indicates a significant rise in suicides from the economic recession, totaling more than 1,000 excess deaths in the United Kingdom alone. Among the worst affected economies in Europe, such as Greece, suicides have risen by more than 60% since 2007.

Researchers affiliated with the University of Cambridge in the UK noted that to date, there has been little or no analysis of US mental health data, primarily due to delays in data availability. Thus, they conducted a study to extend their previous analyses of recessions and suicides in Europe to assess trends in all 50 US states. They published their findings online on November 5 in The Lancet.

The researchers accessed data on suicide mortality rates from 1999 to 2010 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Unemployment data was obtained from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They evaluated excess suicides occurring during the economic crisis (i.e., deaths over and above the level that would be expected if historical trends continued). They noted that concerns exist that suicide data are under-reported in the US; however, these biases are likely to have been consistent over this relatively short period. Thus, they might lead to a conservative estimate of the mental health effects of the crisis.

“In the run-up to the US presidential election, President Obama and Mitt Romney are debating how best to spur economic recovery. Missing from this discussion is consideration of how to protect Americans’ health during these hard times,” noted lead author Aaron Reeves, PhD. He added, “Suicide is a rare outcome of mental illness, but this means that these data are likely the most visible indicator of major depression and anxiety disorders among people living through the financial crisis, as revealed by recent research in Spain and Greece.”

The investigators found that between 1999 to 2008, the annual suicide rate was rising by 0.12 deaths per 100,000 population. However, coinciding with the onset of the recession, the suicide rate accelerated, and an additional 0.51 deaths by suicide per 100,000 population from 2008 to 2010 occurred. The researchers report that this increase corresponds to an additional 1,580 suicides per year. They noted, “Thus, during the recessionary period after 2007, there were an estimated 4,750 excess suicide deaths.”

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They next examined the relationship between rising unemployment and suicide mortality rates and found that a 1 percentage point rise in unemployment was associated with a 0.99% increase in the suicide rate. During 2007-2010, the US unemployment rate increased from 5.8% to 9.6%. The researchers report that the rise in unemployment was associated with a 3.8% increase in the suicide rate, corresponding to approximately 1,330 suicides. They wrote, “In other words, rising unemployment could account for about a quarter of the excess suicides noted in the USA during this time,” they write.

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