Does the Economy Predict Suicides?


Nearly every paper and popular article about suicide begins with acknowledging how hard it is to generalize -- and many then proceed to make new generalizations. That's true of a piece that just appeared in The New York Times:

The suicide rate increased 3 percent in the 2001 recession and has generally ridden the tide of the economy since the Great Depression, rising in bad times and falling in good ones, according to a comprehensive government analysis released Thursday.

It isn't surprising that unemployment affects suicide rates, but there are a few unexplained complications, especially the rise of suicide in the boom years of the 1920s. (It's too bad the authors of the study didn't at least try to use earlier, admittedly less precise, statistics.)  And some mental health organizations have been uneasy about this kind of publicity. In 2008 the president of  the respected International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) wrote a cautionary editorial on journalists' attention to studies linking economic hardship with suicide:

Recently, journalists around the world have become interested in possible increases in suicide due to the current economic depression. They cite the supposedly "dramatic" increases in suicides during the Great Depression. However, it is probably a myth that the catastrophe of the crash of the stock market in late October 1929 caused an epidemic of dramatic suicides by distraught investors after they lost their fortunes. Suicide rates in the United States had been increasing each year steadily since 1925 and only a slightly greater increase in 1930 and 1931 may be attributed to the effects of the Great Depression (Mishara & Balan, 2002). Even for New York City, which may be thought to be particularly affected by the crash, the changes in suicide rates were not dramatic and rates there were also increasing slightly before 1930. There was certainly not an immediate effect of the stock market crash in October 1929. The number of suicides for the months of October and November 1929 in the United States was lower than all the other months that year except January, February and September. The greatest number of suicides in 1929 occurred during the summer months when the stock market was doing quite well. The Manhattan suicide rates for October 15 to November 13, 1929 were lower than the previous year.

Of course this doesn't mean that bad times are necessarily hazardous to your health. As the abstract of a recent paper on economic conditions and mortality in the Publications of the National Academy of Sciences recently concluded:

Population health did not decline and indeed generally improved during the 4 years of the Great Depression, 1930-1933, with mortality decreasing for almost all ages, and life expectancy increasing by several years in males, females, whites, and nonwhites. For most age groups, mortality tended to peak during years of strong economic expansion (such as 1923, 1926, 1929, and 1936-1937). In contrast, the recessions of 1921, 1930-1933, and 1938 coincided with declines in mortality and gains in life expectancy. The only exception was suicide mortality which increased during the Great Depression, but accounted for less than 2% of deaths.

This evidence shouldn't belittle the real suffering of the 1930s, The point is not that adversity is good for people, but that we know so little about how the social environment reflects behavior. Consider income inequality. It often contributes to stress, which may be a suicide factor. But in the late 1920s boom, suicides rose, while in the bubble of the late 1990s they declined. The writer George Howe Colt used the right word 20 years ago: enigma.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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