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Suicide rates rise and fall with the economy, say CDC researchers

Suicides rates in the United States tend to rise and fall with the economy, going up during recessions and going down during expansions, a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported last week.
Furthermore, people in th

Suicides rates in the United States tend to rise and fall with the economy, going up during recessions and going down during expansions, a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported last week.

Furthermore, people in their prime working years (aged 25 to 64) are most affected by economic cycles.

Another “duh” study, you say? Well, yes, other research has found an association between unemployment and suicide. And, yes, the suicide rate did climb rapidly in the United State during the Great Depression.

But, as this current study points out in its background information, suicide studies that have focused on economic crises have had mixed results. Studies conducted in Finland, Sweden and Switzerland, for example, found that the suicide rate actually declined during periods of economic woes.

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The CDC study, published last week in the American Journal of Public Health, is apparently the first one to look at the association between U.S. suicide rates and business cycles over a long (80-year) time period. It’s also the first to break down those statistics by age groups.

The findings are somber. But two Minnesota suicide experts I talked with said those findings may be providing a too-simplistic view of the causes of suicide, at least in our state.

The findings

The CDC researchers examined U.S. suicide statistics from 1928, right before the Great Depression (1929-1932), until 2007, the start of the Great Recession (2007-2009). They found that those rates reached a record high during 1932, when there were 22 suicides for every 100,000 people, up from 18 per 100,000 in 1928.

But there were also spikes in suicides at the end of the New Deal (1937-1938) (an economic contraction that occurred after what some economists say was a premature slashing of government spending in an attempt to balance the budget), during the Oil Crisis (1973-1975) and during the Double-dip Recession (1980-1982).

The study also found that during times of economic growth, suicide rates tended to fall. The sharpest decrease was during the World War II period (1939-1945) and the longest was during the expansionary period of 1991-2001.

But the suicide rate did not fall during the economic boom years of the 1960s. In fact, it went up for people aged 15 to 44. “The social unrest and tumult of the 1960s may have added to young people’s mental stress and therefore contributed to their continuously rising suicide rates,” the CDC researchers write.

Another interesting statistic nestled among the CDC’s findings: The suicide rate of people aged 65 to 74 years has plummeted over the years. That group had the highest suicide rate of any age group in 1928 (41.2 per 100,000) and in 1932 (52.3 per 100,000). Eight decades later, in 2004, that rate had declined to 12.3 per 100,000.

Furthermore, suicides decreased among people aged 65 and older during the oil crisis recession of the 1970s.

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“The rapid increase in Social Security benefits in the late 1960s may have provided a safety net in hard times” for this age group, the CDC researchers note.

Not the full story

Jon Roelser, an epidemiologist with the Minnesota Department of Health, thinks linking suicides to economic downturns may be too simplistic.

“We have looked at the relationship in Minnesota between suicides and the economy, and the relationship is not striking,” he said.

Suicides have been increasing steadily since 2000 in Minnesota, even during expansionary years, Roelser pointed out. The reason for that rise, he said, has more to do with greater access to opioid drugs (particularly prescription painkillers) than to rises and falls in the economy.

“Suicide is a very complex occurrence that involves a lot of intrinsic factors,” Roesler said. “Most people who are unemployed will not [commit] suicide. Most people survive [economic crises] and do well.

“I’m not saying there isn’t a relationship there,” he added. “I’m just saying it’s not overtly striking.”

Phyllis Brashler, the Health Department’s suicide prevention and mental health coordinator, agreed.

“Suicide is extremely complex and the effects of the economy are going to interact with many other risk factors,” she said. Most suicides, she added, are related to mental illness.

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“There’s usually an underlying vulnerability that exists,” she said.

Still, Brashler said she found the CDC study both helpful and interesting, particularly its breakdown of suicide rates by age groups. According to Health Department statistics, the greatest increase in Minnesota suicides over the past decade has been among adults aged 45 to 54. The suicide rate for that age group climbed from 12.3 per 100,000 in 2000 to 19.6 per 100,000 in 2009.

People in this prime working age group were also among those that the CDC found most vulnerable to recessions. 

“Economic hardships could certainly be a precipitating factor for some people,” said Brashler. “But it’s not like we didn’t have a suicide problem before.”

NOTE: For information about Minnesota suicide prevention, go to the state’s Suicide Prevention Resource Center. For immediate help with depression or suicidal thoughts, contact the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.