One in five suicides caused by unemployment but the lead-up to lay-off hurts most

Uncertainty, stress and worse conditions are part of the story. Unemployed by Shutterstock

An important study that examines the social costs of the 2008 banking crisis and the economic recession it created has just been published. The analysis, carried out by Carlos Nordt and colleagues at the University of Zurich, explored the link between increases in rates of unemployment and suicide. They attribute 45,000 – or one in five – suicides a year worldwide to unemployment, with a further 5,000 deaths caused by the economic crisis.

Suicide is a complex event that is the result of the interaction between a number of potential factors. Identified risk factors for suicide include substance misuse, a history of mental illness and unemployment. These factors are clearly not distributed evenly across the general population. For example, the Corston Inquiry in 2008, which looked at the treatment of women in prison, found that more than a third of female prisoners had attempted suicide at some point in their lives.

The study, published in Lancet Psychiatry, looked at the period 2000-11 across four regions – the Americas, northern and western Europe, southern and eastern Europe and non-Americas and non-Europe – and the 63 countries across these regions included Mexico, Brazil, Denmark, Ireland, Poland, Russia, Greece, Spain, Egypt, South Africa, Japan, the UK, US and Australia. Although Hong Kong was included, China and India were not.

The researchers found that there had been an increase in the relative risk of suicide associated with unemployment across all regions of 20% to 30%. There were an estimated 233,000 suicides a year between 2000-11, of which around 45,000 could be attributed to unemployment. In 2007, the year before the crash, there were 41,148 identified cases of suicide. In 2009, this number had risen to 46,131 – an increase of 4,983 or 12%.

Mean unemployment rates and estimated relative risks of suicide associated with unemployment in four world regions, 2000-11. Nordt et al/Lancet Psychiatry

ONS figures have also suggested that austerity measures introduced after 2007, led to an increase in suicides in the UK – particularly among men. However, the increase found by the authors of the Nordt study affected both sexes and different age groups.

Being made unemployed is devastating. The impact is not simply the economic pressure of coping with a significantly reduced income. Work, despite the negatives, provides status as well as structure to our daily lives. As sociologist Imogen Tyler argues there is still social stigma attached to this loss of status.

This study shows that the impact of unemployment was strongest in countries which enjoyed comparatively low unemployment rates before the crash. One possible explanation for this is that not only is the shock of losing a job much greater in these areas but the consequent loss of status also increased.

Flexible working

The link the authors attempt to make between changes in unemployment rates and suicide is a causal one, rather than a correlation. One of the important findings of this work is that there is a time lag between the two: suicide rates increased in the six months prior to the rises in the unemployment rate.

The authors argue that this is due to the changes and increased stresses in the work environment that occur in the run-up to people losing their jobs. These stresses might include atmospheres of tension and unease and the fact that people might work longer hours in worse conditions of employment or on reduced wages in the hope that they will be able to save their jobs.

These, alongside other pernicious features of the modern economy, such as zero hours contracts, are often presented in positive terms such as flexibility. But they do have personal and social consequences. And as both Barbara Ehrenreich in the US and Polly Toynbee in the UK have documented, these developments have had a disproportionate impact on women.

Suicide: a measure of impact

There are limitations to the Nordt study. As the authors note, one of the limitations of these is that data from two of the largest countries, China and India, was missing. There is also little data from the African continent.

In addition, it always important to approach data about suicide with caution because of the stigma that is still attached to it. For example, Coroners’ courts in the UK are generally reluctant to record a suicide verdict unless there is incontrovertible evidence that the person planned to end their life.

Despite some of these limitations, this is a timely and relevant study. As political scientist Mark Blyth says, “austerity” is not a recent or passing phenomena, current policies are a modern manifestation of it.

It seems unlikely that there will be a significant shift in national policies, for example increases in welfare spending or reinstatement of employment protections for workers. But this study shows that the cost of employment policies needs to be viewed in a much broader context.

The link between unemployment rates and suicide is a very important measure of the impact of the economic crisis. However, behind these statistics lie personal and family tragedies, the long-term impact of which is difficult to measure.