Recession special at Gray's Papaya shop from Ed Yourden Flickr photostream

In the last 12 months a number of studies have re-examined the relationship between suicide and unemployment across Europe and the United States.  Suicide rates have accelerated in these countries following rapid rises in unemployment due to the economic crisis.  Yet, such trends have not been observed everywhere: for example, in countries where governments have invested in schemes to assist people with finding work or in mental health services, suicides have not risen at the same rate.  The research on suicide highlights the human cost of the recession and also suggests what could be done to alleviate some of this cost.

Data from across the US, the UK, and Europe has shown rising suicide rates.  In Greece, for example, preliminary estimates indicate that the number of suicides has risen dramatically (approximately 60%).  In the UK the suicide rate was decreasing year on year, but this ended abruptly with the start of the recession which corresponded with a sudden increase in the number of suicides and a rise in unemployment.  Researchers from the UK estimate that a 10% rise in the number of unemployed men led to 1.4% increase in male suicides.  Between 2007 and 2010 the number of unemployed men rose from approximately 900,000 to 1,500,000 – a 66% increase.  This increase in unemployment is therefore estimated to raise the suicide rate by 9%.

The suicide trend in the USA follows a different trajectory – rising year on year between 1999-2010.  Likewise in the USA, mortality data for 2010 show that when unemployment rises 1%, so too does the suicide rate.  There have been an estimated 1500 excess suicides in the US every year since the start of the recession in late 2007. Nearly 400 of these yearly, excess deaths are estimated to be the direct result of the rise in unemployment.  Despite different suicide trends in both the USA and the UK, the impact of the recession on the suicide rate via the rise in unemployment is unmistakable.

What has been most perplexing about the research carried out so far is that this rise in suicides has not been observed in every country where there has been a similarly rapid rise in unemployment. Countries such as Sweden, for example, have been able to avoid increased suicide during economic recession because of increased spending on health and welfare provision (social protection expenditure).  When examining mortality rates and government expenditure on social welfare across Europe, it is clear that additional spending on active labour market programmes, i.e. schemes which help people find work quickly after becoming unemployed, correspond with reduced suicide rates.  A recent study in the Lancet showed that for every US$10 per person increase in investment in such schemes the effect of unemployment on suicides is reduced by 0.038%.

One of the reason such government spending is effective is that they can reduce the psychological distress often linked with unemployment and indeed suicide.  In Spain, a study of randomly selected patients attending primary care facilities found that, compared with the pre-crisis period, there was a significant rise in the proportion of patients presenting with various forms of psychological distress.

Additionally, data from Spain and Finland suggest that mental health prevention programmes also play an important role.  In fact, there is evidence to suggest that such re-employment programmes actually contribute to reductions in levels of the psychological distress amongst the unemployed.  In light of these results it is a real concern to see that there has been a reduction, in real terms, in UK government spending on mental health services at a time when they are perhaps most needed.   Because mortality data for those years after the substantial cuts to the budget of the Department for Work and Pensions are yet to be released it is hard to speak conclusively about the UK case.  But the evidence available at this point would suggest a strong possibility that suicides will increase even more rapidly as various forms of social protection are removed.  As this data is released over the next few years we will see the human cost of austerity.  Suicide, then, is only one manifestation (albeit particularly tragic) of the far broader negative psychological consequences of the recession.

About the author: Aaron Reeves is a research associate at the University of Cambridge and a PhD candidate with ISER, University of Essex.  His research interests include cultural practice, physical activity, and health. This post is adapted from a co-authored piece that appeared in The Lancet. The views expressed here are solely those of the author.