Suicide by Recession: Desperate Times Lead to Desperate Measures

Posted on September 15th, 2014
Posted in Depression

Suicide-by-Recession-Desperate-Times-Lead-to-Desperate-MeasuresBy Jeanene Swanson

While a number of scientific studies link unemployment to poor mental health, a growing body of research shows that job insecurity is also connected to rising numbers of suicides. In a study in the British Journal of Psychiatry, scientists from the University of Oxford and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine found that the recession that began in 2007 could be linked to more than 10,000 suicides across North America and Europe.

The researchers looked at data from the World Health Organization on suicide rates from 24 countries, including the EU, Canada and the U.S. What they found was a growing rate of suicides in the EU starting in 2007; by 2009, the number of suicides had increased by 6.5 percent. Suicides in Canada rose by 4.5 percent between 2007 and 2010, and during the same period of time, suicides in the U.S. increased by 4.8 percent.

While the analysis cannot say for sure that the recession caused the increase in suicide numbers, says lead author Aaron Reeves of Oxford University’s department of sociology, “there is good evidence that the rise is attributable to the recession in these countries.” The study points out that the increased number of suicides is unlikely to be based on previous trends. Previous research has shown a link between unemployment and suicide, and between job insecurity and poor mental health. Other possible explanations “do not necessarily fit the temporal pattern of the rise,” Reeves says.

The Mental Health Toll of Economic Recession

Indeed, in a similar study published in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry and led by the University of Northampton’s Camilla Haw, she describes the possible mechanisms that lead to suicidal behavior during an economic recession. “A major and often prolonged effect of recession is on unemployment and job insecurity,” she writes. “Other important effects include those exerted by financial loss, bankruptcy and home repossession. It is proposed these factors may lead directly or indirectly to mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and binge drinking and then to suicidal behavior.”

Not only can unemployment directly lead to poor mental health, but several studies have also found that substance abuse increases or is exacerbated when someone has lost a job. In a 2011 review of over 130 studies published in Current Drug Abuse Reviews, Dieter Henkel of the Institute of Addiction Research in Frankfurt found that unemployment is a “significant risk factor for substance use and the subsequent development of substance use disorders,” he writes. Additionally, “unemployment increases the risk of relapse after alcohol and drug addiction treatment.”

About one in six unemployed workers are addicted to alcohol or drugs – almost twice the rate for full-time workers – according to the 2012 government survey, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Some evidence concludes that people are turning to drugs and alcohol as salves, or ways to fill their leisure time, during unemployment. In a study published in Industrial Relations in 2013, Ioana Popovici and Michael T. French found a “positive, significant, and robust association between past year job loss and average daily ethanol consumption, number of binge-drinking days, and the probability of an alcohol abuse or dependence diagnosis,” Popovici says.

Popovici gives some reasons that unemployed people would drink more, including drinking to cope with job loss, or to quell the increased anxiety and household discord that comes with it. Additionally, she says, more leisure time might encourage social drinking – even though the unemployed person has to make a trade-off between spending money on alcohol and saving it. “While we cannot conclusively claim that the results are causal, these findings suggest that individual unemployment is a risk factor for alcohol misuse,” she says.

Substance Abuse as a Risk Factor for Suicide

What’s one of the biggest risk factors for suicide? According to a SAMHSA white paper, the answer is substance abuse. A 2009 study in the Archives of Suicide Research found that substance use disorders are among the most frequent psychiatric disorders found in suicides, contributing between 19 and 63 percent, mostly from alcohol use disorders. So, if you’re unemployed, your suicide risk can be increased by this fact alone. Being unemployed also increases your chance of developing a substance use disorder, which in turn is a huge suicide risk. A double whammy, to be sure.

Reeves is hopeful about reversing this trend. Suicides during an economic slowdown are avoidable “by investing in schemes that help people return to work,” he says. “Countries [in Europe] that have higher levels of active labor market programs have been able to avoid rising suicides during periods of recession.”

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