Macroeconomics and Suicide




There are rumors that Wall Street tycoons, and other newly-poor people, committed suicide in droves following the stock market crash of 1929. Many newspapers at the time investigated countless reports of suicide-on-the-street, but most rumors were proved false. But, the rumor was and is easily believable (and people suddenly on the brink of the Great Depression wanted to believe it was true), and throughout history, changes in macroeconomics have been attributed to population mental health, specifically fluctuating rates of suicide.

A new study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, evaluates the economic conditions and suicide rates in New York City over the last 3 decades. The authors evaluated levels of economic activity and the volatility of the New York Stock Exchange, as well as all suicides among New York City residents, between 1990 and 2006. Overall, during the study period, there were nearly 8100 suicides. The rate of suicide declined from 8.1 per 100,000 residents in 1990 to 4.8 per 100,000 in 1999; it remained relatively stable through 2006.

There was a negative association between economic activity and rates of suicide, and suicides were highest when economic activity was at its lowest. Suicide rates varied according to gender, age, race, and sociodemographic status, and most of the association with economic activity was attributed to suicides of older, white males. This group accounted for more suicides during economic downturns than other demographic groups. Stock market volatility was not associated with changes in suicide rates, but, the authors report that this may be due to the small sample size of people invested in the stock market.

Every year, around the world, approximately 1 million people take their own lives. Nearly all of these people have pre-existing psychiatric morbidity, but other factors influence the decision to commit suicide: genetics, stressful life events, access to means of committing suicide, and poor health. Suicide rates are highly variable, however, at population and individual levels. From a broader, population-based perspective, changes in suicide rates have been attributed to stressors that occur within populations, including economic instability. The term “econocide” has recently been coined by psychologists to explain this phenomenon.

Economic recessions and financial troubles are associated with decreased physical and psychological health and increased mortality, and, throughout history, suicides have increased during recessions and economic downturns. (Suicide rates during the Great Depression peaked when the gross domestic product in the United States was at its lowest point.) And, suicide rates are historically highest among impoverished and unemployed people. However, there is a lack of data showing low rates of suicide at times of economic prosperity.

The new study concludes that macroeconomic forces influence mental health, but a causative factor is not identified. Perhaps, economic struggles limit the resources available for mental health services or individuals with underlying conditions might be more likely to experience job loss or unemployment during these periods. Ultimately, the decision to commit suicide is multifaceted and one measure of economic activity in one city cannot explain the choice entirely.

The current study does not include data from the most recent economic recession, and it does not include individual economic status as a confounder of the suicide rate. (Were the older, white males failed Wall Street tycoons or elderly men living on a fixed income?) A bad economy likely brings out the worst in people – physically, mentally, and emotionally – and no one is immune to its strain. Disgraced financial executives might not be killing themselves in the streets today – they have congressional hearings and country club prisons to go to – but suicide prevention services should be directed toward those at highest risk, even at the worst of economic times.

References

Hawton K, Harriss L, Hodder K, Simkin S, & Gunnell D (2001). The influence of the economic and social environment on deliberate self-harm and suicide: an ecological and person-based study. Psychological medicine, 31 (5), 827-36 PMID: 11459380

Nandi A, Prescott MR, Cerdá M, Vlahov D, Tardiff KJ, & Galea S (2012). Economic conditions and suicide rates in New York City. American journal of epidemiology, 175 (6), 527-35 PMID: 22362583

Rehkopf DH, & Buka SL (2006). The association between suicide and the socio-economic characteristics of geographical areas: a systematic review. Psychological medicine, 36 (2), 145-57 PMID: 16420711

Image via Songquan Deng / Shutterstock.

  • Interesting post. There are lots of reasons, personal reasons, behind the act of suicide (or attempted suicide).

    Within psychiatry a few interesting areas are starting to emerge which perhaps increase the risk of suicide – bearing in mind the caveats of what risk entails.

    A few include (a) exposure to Toxoplasma gondii http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21716055 and (b) low levels of cholesterol http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22053758

    This last point has been discussed by quite a few people; one of the best reviews is here: (Dr Deans is a Psychiatrist)

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.
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