CDC: Suicide Rates Increase During Recessions

The CDC has done an eighty-year study of suicide rates and economic performance, which reaches the unsurprising but still bracing conclusion that suicide goes up in times of economic stress. If that’s the case, we’re not only in the midst of the biggest economic hole since the Depression, but the biggest suicide risk. And notably, the study ends at 2007, before the worst of the Great Recession hit. A check of the numbers does show suicides up in 2009, accounting for 11.7 out of every 100,000 deaths, up from 11.3 in 2007 and 11.6 in 2008.

“Knowing suicides increased during economic recessions and fell during expansions underscores the need for additional suicide prevention measures when the economy weakens,” said James Mercy, Ph.D., acting director of CDC’s Injury Center’s Division of Violence Prevention. “It is an important finding for policy makers and those working to prevent suicide.” […]

The overall suicide rate generally rose in recessions like the Great Depression (1929-1933), the end of the New Deal (1937-1938), the Oil Crisis (1973-1975), and the Double-Dip Recession (1980-1982) and fell in expansions like the WWII period (1939-1945) and the longest expansion period (1991-2001) in which the economy experienced fast growth and low unemployment.

The largest increase in the overall suicide rate occurred in the Great Depression (1929-1933)—it surged from 18.0 in 1928 to 22.1 (all-time high) in 1932 (the last full year in the Great Depression)—a record increase of 22.8% in any four-year period in history. It fell to the lowest point in 2000.

If there wasn’t a moral obligation before to stop the suffering that occasions high unemployment, isn’t there one now? It’s literally a matter of life and death. What happened to the culture of life?

Arthur Delaney, who’s been on the beat of telling the stories of the Great Recession for years now, picks up on the report and tells some more stories along these lines:

Kerri, a 57-year-old living near Seattle, says she lost her software sales job three years ago — and that age discrimination has made her ongoing search for work feel hopeless at times.

“I went to an interview and the guy actually excused me before we even started. He said, ‘Well, we’re looking at your resume and we don’t feel that you’d be a good fit,'” Kerri recalls. “Why would I be brought in after two phone interviews with managers?”

By the winter of 2009, she says, she’d taken all the rejection she could stand. She swallowed a bunch of pills.

“There was a reason: I had no hope,” she recalls. “There was no point for the future. I had just lost another job opportunity that I thought I had done a really good job at and they just dismissed me. I was old, and they’re not going to hire me. With that, I couldn’t have my life back.”

I don’t want to mislead and say that there’s one proximate cause for Kerri’s near-miss and the suicides of others. Experts contend that it’s too simplistic to say that suicides directly result from job loss and the economy. But CDC shows a strong correlation, backed up by both statistics and anecdotal evidence.

Just to check, I took a look at the Health and Human Services budget in the latest appropriations deal for FY 2011. HHS runs the National Suicide Prevention Hotline through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The Labor, HHS, Education and Related Agencies section of the deal cut spending by $5.5 billion from 2010 levels and $13 billion from the President’s 2011 budget request. During times of stress, CDC recommends additional social support and counseling services for those who lose their jobs and homes, as well as additional prevention services like crisis centers. I don’t see how you can do that in a time of austerity.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be found at 1-800-273-8255.

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