During the Great Depression, the suicide rate rose from 14 to 17 out of every 100,000 people. Researchers from University of Oxford and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine say the recent Great Recession caused a similar effect. Their findings show that over 10,000 suicides across Europe and North America can be linked to economic turmoil between the years 2008 and 2010, and this increased rate of suicide impacted four times as many men as women.

“There has been a substantial rise in suicides during the recession, greater than we would have anticipated based on previous trends,” said Dr Aaron Reeves, lead author and researcher, Department of Sociology, Oxford University. “A critical question for policy and psychiatric practice is whether suicide rises are inevitable.”

The Great Recession

The U.S. economy contracted 1.9 percent from the fourth quarter of 2007 to the last three months of 2008, according to Bloomberg News. Consumer spending, which accounts for about 70 percent of the economy, decreased 1.8 percent in 2008’s fourth quarter compared to the same period in 2007. To better understand the impact of this momentous event, Reeves and his co-researchers analyzed World Health Organization suicide data covering 24 EU countries and two North American countries. They observed that a general downward trend in suicide rates in the EU reversed when the economic crisis began in 2007, rising by 6.5 percent by 2009, and remaining at the higher level through to 2011. In Canada, suicides rose by 4.5 percent between 2007 and 2010, while the U.S. experienced a similar rate increase (4.8 percent) over the same period.

Working with this data, Reeves and his co-authors estimate that at least 10,000 suicides due to the recession occurred in the EU, Canada, and the U.S. This "conservative estimate" of additional suicides is higher than what might be expected, they claim, as they also found distinct differences in suicide rates across countries affected by the same recession. For instance, Sweden, between 1991 and 1992, and Finland, between 1990 and 1993, both experienced unemployment spikes; however, each country’s rate of suicide decreased during those same years. This trend continued during the recent recession, with suicide rates remaining stable in Sweden and Finland despite rising unemployment.

And in Austria, the suicide rate declined despite increased unemployment. “This study shows that rising suicides have not been observed everywhere so while recessions will continue to hurt, they don't always cause self-harm,” noted Reeves in a statement. According to the calculations of the researchers, job loss, home repossession, and debt are the main risk factors for suicide during an economic downturn.

Source: Reeves A, Stuckler D, McKee M. Economic suicides in Europe and North America's Great Recessions. The British Journal of Psychiatry. 2014.