Since the Great Depression, Hard Economic Times Have Driven Up Suicide Rates, Study Finds
By Bill Hendrick
WebMD Health News
Latest Mental Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD
April 14, 2011 -- The suicide rate in the United States rises when the economy slumps, and falls when economic times improve. And this has been the case at least since the Great Depression, which started with the stock market crash of 1929, the CDC says in a new study.
"Knowing suicides increased during economic recessions and fell during expansions underscores the need for additional suicide prevention measures when the economy weakens," James Mercy, PhD, of the CDC's Injury Center's Division of Violence Prevention, says in a news release. "It is an important finding for policymakers and those working to prevent suicide."
In economic recessions, companies cut back their workforces, leaving many people jobless. Unemployment often is associated with stressful situations such as financial and relationship problems that may increase suicide risk. When economic conditions improve on the other side of normal business cycles, called expansions, companies add workers and unemployment rates fall.
Business Cycles Have Ups and Downs
In the CDC study, the strongest association between economic recessions and suicides occurred in people between 25 and 64, which is considered the prime period of employment.
The study finds that:
- The overall suicide rate generally rose in recessions such as the Great Depression of 1929-1933, the end of the New Deal in 1937-1938, during the oil crisis and embargo of 1973-1975, and the so-called "double dip" recession of 1980-1982.
- Suicides fell in periods of expansion, such as during World War II, from 1939-1945, and during the longest period of business growth in history, between 1991 and 2001, when the economy grew rapidly and unemployment fell to low levels.
- The largest increase in the overall suicide rate occurred in the Great Depression of 1929-1933, surging from 18 per 100,000 people in 1928 to 22.1 per 100,000, an all-time high, in 1932, the last full year of the Great Depression. That four-year period witnessed a record increase of 22.8% compared to any other four-year period in U.S. history. The suicide rate fell to its lowest point in the year 2000.
- Suicide rates of two elderly groups, people between 65 and 74 and 75 and over, and the oldest middle group, people between 55 and 64, experienced the most significant decline from 1928 to 2007.
Business Cycles Influence How People Feel
"Economic problems can impact how people feel about themselves and their futures as well as their relationships with family and friends," Feijun Luo, PhD, a CDC economist and the study's author, says in a news release. "We know suicide is not caused by any one factor -- it is often a combination of many that lead to suicide. But there are many opportunities for prevention."
He says prevention strategies should focus on individuals, families, neighborhoods, and entire communities in order to reduce risk factors.
The CDC report suggests strategies to reduce or prevent suicides during hard times:
- Provide social support and counseling services to people who have lost jobs or their homes.
- Promote togetherness or what CDC calls "connectedness" among individuals, families, and communities. Friendship and high frequency of social contact might help, promoting a feeling of well-being that may be a protective factor against suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
- Increase the availability of crisis centers and helpful community services aimed at preventing suicide.
- Look for specific programs aimed at prevention. These may be most available in areas disproportionately affected by recessions.
Luo says in the article that suicide ranked as the 11th leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2007 and was responsible for 34,598 deaths.
She writes that suicide is not only influenced by economic conditions, but also medical, psychological, social, and cultural factors.
SOURCES: News release, CDC.Luo, F. American Journal of Public Health, April 2011.
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