WHO Study Finds Recession Linked to Rise in Suicide Worldwide

A study published in the British Medical Journal has found a link between the 2008 global financial crisis and a rise in suicide rates in the United States and Europe. The study, which was carried out by the universities of Oxford, Bristol, and Hong Kong, found that in 2009 a 37 percent increase in unemployment was accompanied by nearly 5,000 more suicides than had been projected for that year.

The study was based on data from the World Health Organization, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and the International Monetary Fund, and looked at 54 different countries in Europe and the Americas. On the whole, it found that there were 8.8 percent more suicides in the U.S. and Canada than had been projected, and 13.3 percent more in the 27 European Union countries surveyed. This rise especially impacted men: in European countries the suicide rate among men was 4.2 percent higher than expected, and 6.4 percent higher in the 18 American countries. For European women the rate remained normal, while for American women the increase was 2.3 percent – notably smaller than that of men. Most at risk were European men between the ages of 15 and 24, for whom the suicide rate rose 11.7 percent. This group was followed by American men aged 45-64, who saw an increase of 5.2 percent.

A rise in suicide has long been associated with hard economic times, and the BMJ study confirmed this association. The International Labor Organization estimated that 212 million people were unemployed in 2009 (34 million more than in 2007), and in the same period global GDP declined by 3 percent. The study found that a rising suicide rate among men was associated with a rise in the unemployment rate, especially in countries where unemployment was low prior to the financial crisis.

These facts seem clear-cut enough, but the researchers cautioned that their findings are only one part of a larger picture.

“The rise in the number of suicides is only a small part of the emotional distress caused by the economic downturn,” the authors of the survey commented. “Non-fatal suicide attempts could be 40 times more common than completed suicides, and for every suicide attempt about 10 people experience suicidal thought.”

Clearly, the adverse effect of difficult economic times on mental health needs to be addressed, but, the authors cautioned, the issue should be approached with sensitivity. People who seek help are still often stigmatized, and men are less likely to seek help than women. Study author Shu-Sen Chang says that men should be encouraged to speak and to seek professional attention. And low-cost mental health options should be kept available especially in times of economic hardship — even when austerity measures may be necessary in other areas of the economy.

“Studies from a number of countries show that there is room for improvement for the media coverage of suicide,” Chang said, “insensitive simplification or sensationalization is still not uncommon.”

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