A new study published in The Lancet Psychiatry finds that between 2000 and 2011, unemployment was the cause of approximately 45,000 suicides each year — accounting for nine times as many suicides as the recession, which first hit in 2008.
These striking findings suggest that governments need to do far more to target the negative health effects of unemployment, says lead author Dr. Carlos Nordt, of the University of Zurich Psychiatric Hospital in Switzerland.
To reach their findings, the researchers assessed data from the World Health Organization (WHO) mortality database and the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook database.
The team used longitudinal modeling to calculate the effect unemployment had on suicide in 63 countries over four world regions between 2000 and 2011. The researchers note that they looked at this period so they could analyze the data in times of economic stability (2000-07) and in times of economic crisis (2008-11).
Suicide interventions required in times of economic stability and economic crisis
The researchers found that over all regions included in the analysis, the rate of suicide associated with unemployment increased by 20-30 percent during the time-period from 2000 to 2011. They estimated that around 233,000 suicides took place each year during this period, and unemployment accounted for around 45,000.
Perhaps most interestingly, the researchers found that unemployment was associated with 41,148 suicides in 2007 and 46,131 in 2009, which suggests that the recession in 2008 was responsible for 4,983 additional suicides. This indicates that unemployment is responsible for nine times as many suicides as the economic crisis.
The analysis also revealed that suicide rates tended to increase 6 months before a rise in unemployment rates, and that increasing unemployment rates affected men and women equally — a finding that challenges that of previous studies.
“What is more,” the researchers add, “our data suggest that not all job losses necessarily have an equal impact, as the effect on suicide risk appears to be stronger in countries where being out of work is uncommon. It is possible that an unexpected increase in the unemployment rate may trigger greater fears and insecurity than in countries with higher pre-crisis unemployment levels.”
Based on their findings, the researchers say suicide interventions need to be put in place that focus on the negative health effects of unemployment in times of economic stability and economic crisis. Dr. Nordt adds:
“Besides specific therapeutic interventions, sufficient investment by governments in active labour market policies that enhance the efficiency of labour markets could help generate additional jobs and reduce the unemployment rate, helping to offset the impact on suicide.”
Suicides attributable to economic crisis ‘just the tip of the iceberg’
In an editorial linked to the study, Drs. Roger Webb and Navneet Kapur, both of the University of Manchester in the UK, say the number of suicides resulting from the economic crisis may only be the “tip of the iceberg,” noting that it is likely to have caused many other psychosocial and health-related issues.
“Many affected individuals who remain in work during these hard times encounter serious psychological stressors due to pernicious economic strains other than unemployment, including falling income, ‘zero-hour’ contracting, job insecurity, bankruptcy, debt and home repossession,” they explain.
As such, Drs. Webb and Kapur say that as well as understanding the effect of unemployment on suicide, we need a better understanding of other “psychosocial manifestations of economic adversity,” such as non-fatal self-harm, stress and anxiety, depression, hopelessness, alcohol abuse, familial conflict and relationship breakdown.
“We also need to know how and why highly resilient individuals who experience the greatest levels of economic adversity manage to sustain favorable mental health and well-being,” they add.
The role of government in suicide prevention
The new findings are just the latest in a growing line of evidence documenting the widespread consequences of recent economic turmoil. But the research also indicates that these adverse effects can be mitigated if governments invest adequately in social programs to help those going through hard times — and, conversely, that cutting back on such programs can lead to tragic outcomes.
In a 2014 study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, researchers found that the economic downturn that began in 2007 resulted in at least 10,000 additional suicides in the U.S., Canada, and Europe between the years of 2008 and 2010.
However, despite the overall increase, suicide rates didn’t climb evenly. In some countries, like Sweden and Austria, suicide rates remained flat during the Great Recession, even though those nations’ economies struggled as much as others did. The difference, said the researchers behind that study, is that Sweden and Austria had strong social programs to help people who lost their jobs or were struggling financially.
Another 2014 study, published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, reported similar results, finding that American workers may be at higher risk for major depressive disorder after job loss than European workers. The researchers attributed that finding to the fact that America’s unemployment benefit programs are less comprehensive than those offered by their European counterparts.
Most recently, a study published in the journal Social Forces found a positive association between government spending on social services and the happiness of that country’s population — meaning that that people who live in countries that spend more on social services are happier than those living in countries that spend less.
Those findings are further supported by a study published earlier this month, which revealed that austerity measures in Greece have led to a significant increase in suicide rates in the country.