Hard Economic Times and Increased Suicide

With another United States election around the corner, and what promises to be an exciting — if not benchmark — time in modern history, there is arguably not a person untouched by one of the hottest global and domestic issues at hand: the economy. The effects world affairs have on individuals is widely varying, depending on circumstances, but could the impact of a tanking economy be so great as to take lives in some cases? Review of current literature suggests: Maybe.

The Itasca Brain and Behavior Association (IBBA), comprised of psychiatrists and researchers, conducted an in-depth examination of the relationship between the economic downturn in Japan and an increase in Japan’s suicide rate. At the 2011 American Psychiatric Association annual meeting, IBBA researchers discussed that similar trends in America may already be underway.

To caution of possible parallels in the United States, Dr. Yates, principle investigator on the IBBA team, shared what he learned from Dr. Maki Matsuki and other Japanese colleagues: In the late 1990s, when Japan experienced an economic slump that resulted in a doubling of the country’s unemployment rate, there began a concurrent, “persistent and significant increase” in suicide rates in Japan. After subsequent psychological autopsies, Japanese police teams concluded that a significant causative theme amongst those who committed suicide included unemployment and other significant financial stressors.

What might this important link between economic stressors and increased suicide rate in Japan mean for Americans? The economic conditions described above are not that dissimilar to the current economic climate in the United States. In 2009, there began a significant jump in America’s unemployment rate which has continued to decline over the last two years. Based on this and other economic data reviewed, Dr. Yates suggests that an increase in suicide similar to Japan’s could take place in the United States, occurring through 2012 and possibly extending up to 2016. Dr. Yates warned based on his findings, “If we had a similar increase in suicide rates [as Japan], it would be somewhere in the order of an additional 14,000 individuals per year.”

To further the case for increased consciousness on the topic, Falagas and colleagues reviewed eleven “all-cause” mortality studies spanning the duration of our current as well as two previous decades, and reaching across varying global populations. The studies examined why people die. In review of the literature — specifically, six studies that looked at transportation-related fatalities — Falagas and his team noted that in all six studies, suicide-related mortality increased in temporal association with the economic crisis of the period.

Dr. Yates on the Brain and Behavior team, however, is clear to make the point that although recent research suggests economic stressors for individuals plays at least some role in suicide outcomes, the presence of psychiatric illness and substance abuse issues remains the primary predicator of suicide risk.

Ultimately, these studies point to the need for awareness-raising. Why? Because mental illness, substance abuse and economic issues are not mutually exclusive; and, in fact, are arguably tightly linked. For example, those predisposed to mental illness and/or substance abuse issues also likely have difficulty securing and maintaining jobs in a climate with dramatically increased competition for said jobs. Perhaps even more critical is that those who are the most vulnerable to experiencing depression, substance abuse, and other mental health-related issues and diagnoses, are also the very individuals that do not have access (i.e. insurance) for the care they need that might interfere with seeking the permanent solution to a temporary problem… suicide. As global and domestic economic climates continue to present news of uncertainty, and as bleeding edge medical and psychiatric research relevant to these constantly-changing circumstances goes to print, the trickling effects on individuals across the world will beg further exploration.


Cassels, Caroline. Economic Woes and Suicide: Will the United States follow Japan? American Psychiatric Association (APA) 2011 Annual Meeting: Abstract NR04-71. Presented May 15, 2011.

Falagas ME, Vouloumanou EK, Mavros MN, & Karageorgopoulos DE (2009). Economic crises and mortality: a review of the literature. International journal of clinical practice, 63 (8), 1128-35 PMID: 19624782

Gresenz CR, Stockdale SE, & Wells KB (2000). Community effects on access to behavioral health care. Health services research, 35 (1 Pt 2), 293-306 PMID: 10778816

Image via Martin M303 / Shutterstock.

  • onergk69

    Emile Durkheim, a sociologist, also discusses the correlation between suicide & econmic adversity. He describes 4 subtypes:egoistic, altruistic, anomic, & fatalistic.
    Egoistic, anomic & fatalistic subtypes apply to this situation.

    In the egistic circumstance, the individual now has week ties to the larger social group; in anomic, the person has suddenly experienced a loss in status; and in fatalistic, the individual has given up hope of any recovery.


    • It’s good to point out that there is no “cookie cutter” way of explaining suicide, even when discussing larger, possible correlating issues (like economic situation and stressors). Thanks for mentioning the work by Mr. Durkheim. It seems to assign more specific, causal “sub categories” to such a complex issue.

  • I suppose we can add to this the dramatic biological changes to various animals, including humans, when there is a loss of status. Behavior changes considerably, as when a primate or dog loses alpha status. Is that biology part of the cascade of factors contributing to suicide? Is this related to “sickness behavior” discussed by evolutionary psychology, instead being “status behavior?” I don’t know if they have already fleshed this out very much. In any case, the various social measures that can generate hope and shore up self esteem are probably helping stem the tide of suicide, e.g. job placement as a part of social agencies, recognition and help with disabilities and recovery by agencies like Vocational Rehabilitation agencies, etc. I suppose the financially stressed out characters appearing on TV have a healing “we’re in this together” influence, and serve as role models for persistence. And then there’s the healing power of humor. The three stooges and the Honeymooners were struggling. Now it’s the reincarnation of Two and a Half Men, for example. Sorry if this is a little disorganized…just thinking out loud.

  • The Japanese study you mentioned makes sense, as I currently live in Asia and have seen firsthand a dramatic increase in depression amidst the dwindling economy and unemployment. I was also reading a few studies published on the Natural Society site and they cited some that went into a general increase in mental illness at the present time. Could it be linked to constant worry from a lack of income? Absolutely, and more studies need to be done.

  • Pingback: Macroeconomics and Suicide | Brain Blogger()

Amie Martin, MSW, LMSW

Amie Martin, MSW, LMSW, attended Truman State University where she received a Bachelor of Science Degree in Psychology and minored in Philosophy & Religion. Martin later received a Master’s Degree in Social Work Planning & Administration from the University of Missouri at Columbia before spending time as a Peace Corps Business Volunteer working with battered women in Kyrgyzstan. She returned and has worked in the non-profit, behavioral health sector for more than ten years. She specializes in the areas of maternal & child behavioral health and acute psychiatry. Martin has been writing academically and professionally for a combined eighteen years. She lives in Missouri with her husband and three children.

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