Sharp Increase in US Suicides Blamed on Financial Crisis

Caroline Cassels

November 05, 2012

A sharp increase in US suicide rates is being blamed on the country's current economic crisis.

A new analysis published online November 5 as Correspondence in the Lancet shows that after 2007, deaths by suicide quadrupled.

"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," lead author Aaron Reeves, PhD, of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, said in a statement.

The authors note that this research supports previous data from Europe, where it is estimated that the economic recession is responsible for "1000 excess deaths in the UK alone."

They add that among the worst affected economies in Europe, such as Greece, suicides have risen by more than 60% since 2007.

"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," Dr. Reeves added.

However, the investigators note that there has been "little or no analysis of US mental health data."

For the study, the researchers analyzed suicide and mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They also analyzed unemployment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Time-trend regression models were used to assess excess suicides over and above the level that would be expected if historical suicide trends continued.

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 there was an additional 0.51 deaths by suicide per 100,000 population from 2008 to 2010. The researchers report that this increase corresponds to an additional 1580 suicides per year.

"Thus, during the recessionary period after 2007, there were an estimated 4750 excess suicide deaths."

Next, they 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 1330 suicides.

"In other words, rising unemployment could account for about a quarter of the excess suicides noted in the USA during this time," they write.

The investigators note that it is possible to avoid increased rates of suicide in tough economic times. They note that some countries, such as Sweden, have avoided an increase despite a major economic downturn.

"Active labour market programmes — projects that immediately help the unemployed find social support and new work opportunities (even part time) — and mental health prevention programmes seem to mitigate significantly the negative mental health effects of recessions.

"The fact that countries such as Sweden have been able to prevent suicide rises despite major recessions reveals opportunities to protect Americans from further risk of suicide during the continued economic downturn," the authors write.

The authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Lancet. Published online November 5, 2012. Full article