Death, Suicides, And The Pandemic Economy

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Yves here.I recall seeing articles reporting that suicides have risen due to Covid-19, with experts in the field saying the individuals killing themselves seem more determined than is normally the case, since many attempts are cries for help or impulsive. However, this post indicates that the data isn’t consistent with these reports, which were both local and anecdotal. That suggests that the rise in suicides so far is concentrated in communities more likely to get media attention, such as recently well-off members of the professional-managerial classes.

Economist Barkley Rosser isn’t cheery; he describes how the sort of rise you’d intuitively expect to see a sharp increase in unemployment may be held in check by temporary factors, even more so now that usual.

By Barkley Rosser, Professor of Economics at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Originally published at EconoSpeak

The relation between death and the pandemic economy is a fraught one that has become hotly debated, although with not much clear empirical evidence. I note that recently over on Econbrowser Menzie Chinn has had a series of posts on this matter in various forms. Obviously a big issue has been the claim by the anti-lockdown crowd that not reopening the economy quickly will lead to an increase in suicides by the increasingly large numbers of unemployed people out there. There certainly have been many studies in the past showing a variety of bad social outcomes from high unemployment, including suicides, domestic abuse, drug abuse, depression, and more. There does seem to be some strong evidence of several of these notably higher domestic abuse and depression.

When it comes to suicide and death more broadly, the empirical picture is very murky. Menzie in one of his recent posts reported on a regression he ran covering monthly data from 1998 to very recently that used dummies for months and then unemployment rates and suicides (in the US) and found the an unexpected “wrong sign” with lower suicides correlated with higher unemployment, although this was not a statistically significant result. He provides no explanation for why this odd result seems to be there, but it does show that this is not a simple matter.

Regarding current data on the main question, so far there does not seem to be any data showing a noticeable rise in suicides in the US since the pandemic, with only reports of some increases among medical personnel, who have suffered from overwork, stress, and even guilt, along with fear. That we might be seeing that out of them is completely understandable.

So why might we not be seeing much increase in suicides so far despite all the things going on such as increased depression as well as unemployment and more that would suggest we might expect to see it? Some have suggested a “wartime” effect: people are suffering, but they know others are as well and so rally around the flag to hang in there. This rally around the flag effect even worked for awhile to boost Trump’s polls for a few weeks in late March and early April until people saw how we was botching things, and now his polls are lower than they were before, even as those of some generally unpopular leaders in other hardhit nations like Italy, France, and Spain have seen their poll numbers continue to be noticeably higher than they were previously.

Another element, suggested to me by my medically connected daughters, not all that different from the above, is that people who are depressed feel “validated” because now others appreciate their condition. This is especially relevant for veterans suffering from PTSD and so on.

Before proceeding further, let me note that there are some factors that may lower the death rate during a recession that can offset to some degree, with the importance of these matters of ongoing debate. Probably the most important is the reduction of pollution, which is estimated to kill 200,000 to 300,000 people per year in the US. Obviously pollution reductions now in the US are not going to offset all of that or even most of that, but presumably it does some. An estimate in more heavily polluted China has claimed that the reduction of pollution there due to the pandemic might have saved up to 50,000 to 100,000 lives. That is clearly a large number, and way exceeds the number of people in China who died of the coronavirus.

I note on this my earlier post that apparently at the global level carbon emissions have been estimated to have declined by 17% to a bottom point near April 7, with them rising gradually since with a likely gradual recovery of the world economy (with the US lagging on both the virus and the economic recovery). Probably carbon emissions are highly correlated with other forms of pollution, so this looks like a pretty good indicator of timing on that one, at least globally.

Two other items that have been brought up as reducing deaths during a lockdown/recession are auto deaths and work-related deaths. It is probably true that we have seen some reductions of those in the US in the last few months, but I have yet to see any sort of reliable data on them. Both of those have been trending downwards in recent years gradually in the US, with auto deaths in 2019 a bit over 36,000 with work-related deaths at about 5,100 (construction is the largest with over 1000). Suicides last year were at about 48,000 in the US, so larger than those two put together, but as of now we do not know how any of these have changed recently.

I would add that on this matter of auto versus suicide deaths, the US picture is quite different from the global picture, although there is reason to be skeptical about some of the international data on suicides, which get covered up in many natinos (but also in the US to some extent for insurance reasons). Anyway, as of last year global auto deaths were estimated to be about 1.35 million while suicides were at a much lower 800,000. Almost certainly why we have more suicides than auto deaths in the US unlike the rest of the world is that we have way more guns per capita than any other nation, and it is well established in the US that across states there is a strong correlation between guns per capita and suicide rates.

On a speculative note, given that pretty much the entire US is now engaging in varying degrees of reopening despite very few states having actually met the CDC guidelines for doing so, that we may see a perverse effect of an increase in suicides in the near future, even as the economy expands, which it certainly has been now for some time, maybe even as long as a month. For one thing, unemployment continues to rise, despite the economy growing (and the stock market rising especially strongly). But another effect may be the ending of that “wartime” effect. People who are depressed and unemployed may lose that feeling of solidarity and as they fail to get jobs and may become homeless due to failures to pay rent, and so on, they may become more seriously depressed and feeling isolated. I can well imagine such an effect leading to more suicides, although I do not know.

I will make a completely anecdotal observation that somehow this week I have observed several people both that I am in close contact with as well as some more distant, who seem to have sort of been freaking out this week. This is probably just an odd bad luck of the draw, but I am a bit worried that it may reflect my speculation in the previous paragraph, and that whether or not we see more suicides, we may see an increase in the near term of people getting less happy and more depressed. if that is happening, let us hope that it ends soon. This pandemic has been bad enough.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    There are so many variables involved here I think only a long term perspective (i.e in a few years time), will give us any sort of sensible overview. As the article notes, suicides can be surprisingly low in times of war and other ‘external’ sources of stress. My gut feeling is that the initial ‘we are all in this together’ vibe has helped a lot of people get through tough times. This is why the breakdown of community consensus as lockdown relaxes is so potentially dangerous. It would be interesting to see, for example, how the public disgust in the UK with the blatant flouting of the rules by Cummings impacts on ordinary peoples behaviour. Again, its just a gut feeling, but I think this sort of thing will do more damage to isolated individuals than anything else – the perception that they are being left alone and isolated, while others are doing what pleases them.

    There is also of course the problem that open discussion of suicide cases can provoke multiple copy-cat cases. The high profile of the awful tragic death of Hana Kimura in Japan is the sort of thing that could trigger a spate of other suicide attempts. I see that even in Japan they have (wisely) restricted reporting on details. The show she was on is very popular around the world.

  2. oaf

    auto versus suicide deaths

    These can’t be truthfully taken as completely unrelated…suicide by motor vehicle is quite possible, and possibly common. Kind of hard to tell what a deceased individual’s state of mind was at the time of an accident (on-purposident?). This is akin to claiming that all deaths where CV19 is observed are caused by CV19. From a statistical viewpoint, overlap of sets is common. Muddy indeed.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Ahem, I think you missed that auto deaths are DOWN. In Alabama, we have negative excess deaths due to the fall in auto accidents.

      1. Jack

        I took oaf’s comment to mean that auto suicides are a higher percentage of auto deaths despite a decrease in the total.

        1. oaf

          What was meant: Although auto deaths referred to are down; a portion of them may be suicides. We will never know an exact number. I just wanted to point out that some deaths could be listed in two categories. Never stated that auto deaths were up. Didn’t mean to confuse.

      1. Carla

        It’s odd. When I’m driving these days (which is not often) I observe speeding and reckless behaviors on the part of other drivers. Yet when I am out for my more-than-daily walks, drivers consistently slow down, motion me to cross while they wait, and are much more polite and patient than formerly was the case. So, it’s a puzzlement.

        1. wilroncanada

          We’ve had a pandemic of speeding on the roads of BC, Driving more than 40kmh over the posted speed limit earns a fine of just under $300 and impoundment of the car for 7 days. One driver was caught twice the same day; the first time, his car was impounded, then a couple of hours later he was stopped again doing 135 or close in a 90 zone and his second car was impounded. This happened somewhere in the Vancouver region.

          Her in the Cowichan Valley (north of Victoria) there were two notable incidents this past week. In one, an elderly woman driving south with her husband was clocked at over 120 in a 70 zone–the slower speed was in the bypass of a small town. The police were somewhat brusque, apparently. The officer responded to her plea: I’ve never even had a parking ticket and was just trying to escape an erratic driver, by telling her that they were also impounding her car for 7 days. (A lawyer has volunteered to take her case pro bono.) My wife and I responded with the shared thoughts: 1. She needs driving lessons. 2. If she has ever driven that road before she should have been aware, since it’s the only route through that part of Vancouver Island, of the speed reduction in the bypass.

          The second incident, two days, was a driver traveling south from Duncan toward Victoria, clocked at more than 100kms /hour over the speed limit. The speed limit was 80. The area has a farmers market store and consumer/industrial buildings on both sides. It was daytime.

  3. Anon- sorry I can't say

    Recently, a mental health professional told me that both suicides and overdoses have skyrocketed. I don’t know the source of her information but she is in the field and personally I trust her.

    1. Keith

      My girlfriend has said the same. She is a nurse that does the numbers at the local hospital. I have also seen reports about the effects of social isolation and mental health. The US was already behind the curve as we have so many pill poppers for depression, anxiety, etc before the crisis. I think this just continues and intensifies the self medicating trend.

    2. GettingTheBannedBack

      Where I am, a conservative economist on national tv, Dr Gigi Foster, was outraged by the impact of closing businesses, because of the impact on those losing jobs including a rise in suicides.
      But a professor who works in the health/suicide prevention arena said there had been no spikes in suicides in the past 3 months. Personally, I think its better to follow the data.

  4. Krystyn Podgajski

    I will say that anecdotally, I have two female friends who said their mental health had sort of a recovery during the shutdown. One felt her stress vanish from not having to be at work for two months. For the other, it reset her perspective and the tight grasp she had on her life, loosened.

    So maybe we have chopped some off here and added some there.

    As for my own disabling physical and mental health, the quiet and clam during the first few weeks of shutdown was sublime. And suddenly my friends has time to talk to me. And also seeing others experiencing suffering made me part of a larger group instead of an outcast. The frenetic energy that bothers me nearly vanished. But that really did not last long.

    1. anon22

      So maybe wage slavery isn’t all that some* crack it up to be?

      *No doubt safely insulated from it themselves by wealth, tenure, a trust fund, etc.

    2. rd

      I know a couple of introverts that are happy as clams. Their stress is significantly reduced because they don’t feel like they are avoiding people now when they work from home instead of going to the open office concept that they hate.

      On the other hand, the very social people I know are climbing the walls right now.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        Yes I know someone in NYC who says she’s having a great lockdown. Got tons of work done, not having to socialize with women her age who are classic Hillbots and annoy her, and got in much better shape climbing up and down stairs than she had been with her swimming regime. So there are always exceptions.

  5. David

    Suicide, like murder, requires means, motive and opportunity. Motive may have increased during the pandemic (or it may have not) but the other two have probably declined in many parts of the world. In the UK, for example, about 10% of suicides annually come from throwing yourself off buildings, jumping under trains etc, which will have been relatively more difficult recently. Likewise, a major cause of death by suicide is poisoning, which usually means accumulating over-the-counter medicines over a long period of time, and (like hanging or strangulation, the most popular method) requires isolation, and time alone to prepare and carry out the act. Another complicating factor is that more people who try suicide may actually succeed during the epidemic, because emergency medical staff are busy elsewhere. I think it will be a long time before e have any clear picture of what has been happening.

  6. cm

    I’m not sure if this article is supposed to show class differences (particularly an inability to empathize/relate to the working class), but I was amused this (in the 2nd to last para) sentence:

    People who are depressed and unemployed may lose that feeling of solidarity and as they fail to get jobs and may become homeless due to failures to pay rent, and so on, they may become more seriously depressed and feeling isolated.

    Huh. Losing your house may lead to the sads? Who knew?

    Benton County, WA

    Fourteen people died by suicide so far this year in the county. And eight of the deaths were between March 12 and April 23, Benton County Coroner Bill Leach said.

    Seems like collecting and reporting monthly deaths by cause by county nationwide would be something a 1st world country could manage.

    Here’s a nice graph showing state-wide changes in suicide rates for the period 1999-2016.

      1. rd

        He actually made a huge step forward by acknowledging that humans have emotions that can lead to consequences, unlike the “econs” normally postulated by economists (nod to Richard Thaler).

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          I agree, that’s a big reason why I ran the piece, even if some of his formulations were awkward. He was going against the grain for his discipline.

  7. k teh

    The old leasehold system acts as a trust against the family common law system, and without trust, there is no economy. Those trained to pursue equal rights instead of responsibility are naturally going to angry, depressed and fearful, to be taken advantage of by the greedy. Life is who you choose to associate with.

    It’s always bread and circuses, twisting science and using it against you. In this iteration, all the user interfaces are specifically designed to keep you in a feedback loop between the spinal chord and the limbic system, automatic response and emotion, while keeping your cortex busy in an artificial representation of the world.

    But if your heart is in the right place, you don’t have to expend energy on the symptoms. A part-time $15/hr job gets you just as far as a full-time $100k job over time. And now is a good time to be looking.

    Which parking lot is full of reliable cars? Which jobs are essential and private? Which job gives you the greatest exposure to landlords? Which landlords rent productive units and which rent for the pop goes the weasel economy?

    The part-time job keeps you in place during the pop goes the weasel phase, while your small business keeps pace with inflation. Who in the community actually works, creating net value for the community? What do they need? When do they need it?

    Running a business the way it is taught in school ensures corporate growth at the expense of the individual. Begin with physical distance and learn mental distance as you you move in. Over time, you will see opportunities to extract from the MMT landlords and redirect toward productive ends. And there is always a ton of old guys, holding property at WWII valuations, but few young people prepared.

    Prepare accordingly and you will stand out like a sore thumb, for good and bad, so opportunities present themselves.

  8. Alex Cox

    A counter-anecdote: I read that after the NY lockdown it was impossible to get a dog: all the animals in the pounds having been adopted.

    Adopting a dog (and I’m sure this applies to cats) obliges you to focus on another being and its needs, and results in massive inputs of love plus considerable entertainment.

    If you are responsible for the welfare of another being, be it child, parent, or iguana, perhaps you are less likely to surrender to despair.

    1. WS

      I adopted a cat the week before the safer-at-home order was announced here in WI; without Henri to worry about I’d probably have lost my grounding completely by now.

        1. WS

          White and ginger–his shelter name was Henry, I just wanted to class him up a little!

  9. Pwelder

    WRT policy and the suicide body count: Owner-operators of small businesses in the hundreds of thousands have co-signed instruments that guarantee repayment of bank loans.

    In the event of non-payment the bank gets to take the house, the car, the dog, the furniture, and anything else that has not been successfully hidden.

    Politicians, on the advice of medical professionals who have little or no experience of life under these conditions, have brought financial ruin to many thousands of small businesses and their co-signers.

    Maybe it was the right thing to do. My own sense is that they have no idea of this inevitable consequence of what they are doing. If they did, they would – some of them, at least – have the grace to apologize.

    1. anon23

      The fault lies largely with a money system that drives people and businesses into debt – creating a rat-race that can’t even pause for a while without ruin.

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