Great Recession a Factor in Suicide Rate Jump Among Middle-Aged

By Anne Harding

Suicide rates have risen sharply among middle-aged Americans since 2007, and new findings suggest economic stresses played a major role in the increase.

The proportion of suicides in which external circumstances, such as financial problems, were a factor rose between 2005 and 2010 among 40- to 64-year-olds, with the climb being particularly steep during the worst years of the Great Recession, Dr. Katherine Hempstead of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Princeton, New Jersey, a co-author of the new study, told Reuters Health in a telephone interview.

"A growing share of suicides included this as a circumstance that was considered to be a contributing factor to the suicide," Dr. Hempstead said. "This is an age group that is particularly vulnerable to recession, they tend to be homeowners, they tend to have dependents, they aren't necessarily secure in their own retirement. It's not surprising that a recession would hit this age group the hardest."

The new findings were published online February 26 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Several studies have linked the economic downturn of 2007-2009 to higher suicide rates, especially for middle aged people and men, Dr. Hempstead and Dr. Julie A. Phillips of the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research in New Brunswick, New Jersey, note in their report.

But nearly all of these studies have lacked information on the circumstances of an individual's suicide, they add, making it difficult to directly link economic factors to these deaths.

To better understand the role of these factors, Dr. Hempstead and Dr. Phillips analyzed data from the National Violent Death Reporting System, which includes information on 17 different circumstances involved in an individual's death.

They divided the circumstance categories into three groups: personal circumstances, such as mental health problems; interpersonal circumstances, such as relationship problems or domestic violence; or external circumstances, including problems with jobs, finances, or legal issues.

In the United States as a whole, the suicide rate among adults 40 to 64 years old increased by 17.6% between 2005 and 2010, while the unemployment rate nearly doubled. By 2010, in this age group, about 79.8% of suicides were related to personal circumstances, about 40.4% to interpersonal circumstances, and 37.5% were related to external circumstances.

While external circumstances were the least frequently cited, they were the only category to show an increase between 2005 and 2010 (from 32.9% to 37.5%), the researchers found.

Suicides related to external circumstances among people 65 and older also increased, from 7.5% to 12.4%, but they did not increase among people younger than 40.

The data also showed a sharp increase in the use of suffocation as a suicide method among 40- to 64-year-olds, of 59.5%, while it increased by 18% in younger people and 27.2% for older people. "Regardless of circumstance, an increase in suffocation suicides poses a challenge for prevention efforts, given the high lethality and wide availability of the method," Dr. Hempstead and Dr. Phillips note.

"What this analysis showed is that factors related to personal economic stresses really were contributing factors to the rise in suicides among the middle-aged that was seen in the past decade, and we really see that correlating with the Great Recession," Dr. Hempstead said. "That suggests that there's an opportunity to prevent some of these suicides by being a little bit more aware that these factors can put people at risk."

She added, "People that work in human resources departments, people that work in consumer finance, people that are involved with mortgage and foreclosures, people that are coming into contact with people that are in some kind of financial difficulty, should be very aware that these events can contribute to suicidal feelings."


Am J Prevent Med 2015.

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