I’m surprised, but perhaps I shouldn’t be, that a recent study hasn’t gotten the attention it warrants. It points to a direct connection between the impact of the crisis and a marked increase in suicide rates among the middle aged. This link seems entirely logical, given how many citizens found themselves whacked by a one-two punch of job loss or hours cutbacks combined with the sudden plunge in home prices. Normally, a last ditch course of action for most middle and upper middle class income members in the pre-crisis days, when things got desperate, was to sell you house and cut costs radically by moving into a much more modest rental. But that option vanished in all but the most stable markets (as in some flyover states that the subprime merchants ignored) due to home price declines trashing equity for all but those with small or no mortgages.
And you have the further psychological toll of the difficulty of re-inventing yourself if you are over 35. I can point to people who had enough in the way of resources and took steps that seemed entirely logical, taking courses to prepare them for a new career in fields with good underlying demand (see this post for one example; I can cite others) and got either poor returns on their expenditure of time and effort or had no success at all.
And the ones with enough options (bigger savings buffers or relatives who were willing and able to help) are the lucky ones. For all too many middle to upper middle income workers in America, when you fall off the corporate/big firm meal ticket, the fall is far indeed. As readers know all too well, the prejudice against older candidates as well as the unemployed is substantial, even if the reason for the job loss in no way reflected on employee performance (as in business failure or working for an acquired company when, in typical practice, the buyer went through the ranks of the purchased business with a howitzer). People who thought that having a college degree and a steady history of good performance at white collar jobs gave them a measure of security had that illusion ripped from them.
The summary of the article from the Science website (hat tip Dr. Kevin):
Suicide rates for adults between 40 and 64 years of age in the U.S. have risen about 40% since 1999, with a sharp rise since 2007. One possible explanation could be the detrimental effects of the economic downturn of 2007-2009, leading to disproportionate effects on house values, household finances, and retirement savings for that age group. In a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers found that external economic factors were present in 37.5% of all completed suicides in 2010, rising from 32.9% in 2005.
In addition, suffocation, a method more likely to be used in suicides related to job, economic, or legal factors, increased disproportionately among the middle-aged. The number of suicides using suffocation increased 59.5% among those aged 40-64 years between 2005 and 2010, compared with 18.0% for those aged 15-39 years and 27.2% for aged >65 years.
“Relative to other age groups, a larger and increasing proportion of middle-aged suicides have circumstances associated with job, financial, or legal distress and are completed using suffocation,” noted study authors Katherine A. Hempstead, PhD, Director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Princeton, NJ, and the Center for State Health Policy at Rutgers University, and Julie A. Phillips, PhD, Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research, New Brunswick, NJ. “The sharpest increase in external circumstances appears to be temporally related to the worst years of the Great Recession, consistent with other work showing a link between deteriorating economic conditions and suicide. External circumstances also have increased in importance among those aged ?65 years. Financial difficulties related to the loss of retirement savings in the stock market crash may explain some of this trend.”
The US isn’t the only place to witness a rise in suicides as a result of increased economic distress. As the Wall Street Journal reported in 2011:
Two years into Greece’s debt crisis, its citizens are reeling from austerity measures imposed to prevent a government debt default that could cause havoc throughout Europe. The economic pain is the price Greece and Europe are paying to defend the euro, the center…
The most dramatic sign of Greece’s pain, however, is a surge in suicides.
Recorded suicides have roughly doubled since before the crisis to about six per 100,000 residents annually….About 40% more Greeks killed themselves in the first five months of this year than in the same period last year…
Suicide has also risen in much of the rest of Europe since the financial crisis began, according to a recent study published in the British medical journal The Lancet, which said Greece is among the hardest hit…
A suicide help line at Klimaka, the charitable group, used to get four to 10 calls a day, but “now there are days when we have up to 100,” says a psychologist there, Aris Violatzis.
The caller often fits a certain profile: male, age 35 to 60 and financially ruined. “He has also lost his core identity as a husband and provider, and he cannot be a man any more according to our cultural standards,” Mr. Violatzis says…
Victims once were typically adolescent males or old people facing severe illness, and in normal times suicide cases often involve a mixture of factors including mental illness, says local [Heraklion, Crete] psychiatrist Eva Maria Tsapaki.
But the economic crash has created a “new phenomenon of entrepreneurs with no prior history of mental illness who are found dead every other week,” she says. “It’s very unusual.”
It’s hard to imagine that suicides haven’t risen further. With the Greek economy continuing to contract, more have to have run out of resources and hope.
Even though economic distress is less acute in the US, there’s reason to think our society is even more vulnerable to suicide. We have much greater income stratification, so that even if someone can remain in his home after a large setback, he’s almost certain to be unable to afford to participate in the same social activities as his supposed friends can. And America is particularly bound up in the idea of career and financial success, seeing those who take a tumble as losers rather than victims.
This well-intentioned section of the Science write-up thus comes off as naive:
The authors caution that “increased awareness is needed that job loss, bankruptcy, foreclosure, and other financial setbacks can be risk factors for suicide. Human resource departments, employee assistance programs, state and local employment agencies, credit counselors, and others who interact with those in financial distress should improve their ability to recognize people at risk and make referrals. Increasing access to crisis counseling and other mental health services on an emergency basis, as is often provided at times of natural disaster, should also be considered in the context of economic crises.”
Um, HR departments are concerned solely with liability avoidance. And some parties like debt collectors seek to increase the psychological pain of those who are in economic trouble as part of their business model.
As Lambert often says about neoliberalism, one plank in the model is for old people to die faster, and higher suicides speed that process along. It’s not easy to make the smug and the abusive feel ashamed of their conduct, since they are confident they’d never wind up as losers, when the reality is that the odds are much higher than they dare imagine.