People Seem to Kill Themselves More Often When the Economy's Bad

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No big surprise, but it's good to have data, I guess: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention surveyed how suicide rates fluctuated as the U.S. economy upticked and downturned between 1929 and 2007. Published by the American Journal of Public Health, the CDC's research showed that suicides increased during the Great Depression, the oil crisis of the mid-70s, and the "Double-Dip Depression" that occurred during Ronald Reagan's first two years in office (the "It's Mourning in America" years).

Reports the New York Times:

While many researchers have argued that economic hardship can raise the likelihood of suicide in people who are already vulnerable — like those with depression or other mental illnesses — research has been mixed. Some studies have supported such a link, but others have found the opposite: that rates drop in periods of high unemployment, as if people exhibit resilience when they need it most.

Using more comprehensive data to nail down economic trends, the new study found a clear correlation between suicide rates and the business cycle among young and middle-age adults. That correlation vanished when researchers looked only at children and the elderly. It may not be the case that economic troubles cause suicide attempts, but they can be factors.

The study didn't cover trends under way during the most recent recession, which has brought about the loss of 13 million jobs, wage stagnation, and the elimination of entire industries, just to name a few problems. (The federal prison industry's still booming, though!) Las Vegas has witnessed an increase in suicides—and if the residents of a city known for its top-notch entertainment offerings and nice weather are in despair, then it can't be good for the rest of America. Did the suicide victims in LV not realize that the recession ended almost two years ago? Maybe they did not hear the news because they were too busy searching for jobs.

So, what do we do about this problem? Well, trying to understand and acknowledge its severity, and the psychic toll that unemployment takes on people, is probably a good place to start. "Job loss, mounting debt, losing one’s home or marriage, these can all be tightly related to one another and often occur together, creating a chain of adversity that overwhelms individuals in recessionary times," says Temple University associate professor Matt Wray. You know how poor people always seem to have soooo many issues? Like, their car breaks down, and then they get a kidney stone, and then their house cat needs a wheelchair or whatever? That's because being poor means there's no money to pay for stuff. Seems pretty simple, yet so many people don't understand it—or want to understand it. As columnist Byron Williams points out, 28 percent of the country thinks things—and by "things," I mean the largest income gap in America's history, slashed services for low-income moms and children, fewer funds for Pell grants, high unemployment rates, and now this news about suicides—are just fine. Where do they live?

People who are in comfortable economic positions (or think they're in better positions, because who doesn't want to be a winner?) often write off the poor person's lack of joie de vivre, if you will, as some sort of defect or "confidence issue" instead of "hey, that person has no money, that must suck." Part of it is that nothing is more frightening to people who are afraid of their own vulnerability than a vulnerable person. But there's also the problem that many people just don't care about the broke and suffering—or the unhappy, which often includes the broke and suffering. And it's not just the crying John Boehners of this world who belong to this camp: the other day I read this article in the Atlantic, a librul publication, about how unhappy people are "poisonous" so you should just stay away from them. One common reason people are unhappy these days is that they have no money and lots of bills to pay. Should we just forget about them because they aren't meeting our needs by being perkier? Seems kind of selfish, don't you think?

Call me Saul Alinsky, but I think we owe each other a duty to offer help and a shoulder when things get tough. Ignoring the less fortunate, or stigmatizing them, hurts everyone. So drop your unemployed friend an e-mail to let them know you still care about them. Take them out for coffee. Put them in touch with a potential business contact. Give them hope. And commit for the long haul, because even though the recession's "over," some economic experts are predicting that the jobs might not be coming back until 2016.

"We ought to act on ... the idea that suicides are preventable and that we live in a time of heightened vulnerability, especially among the middle-aged and elderly, who often feel the effects of recessions more acutely," Wray says. Couldn't agree more.

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