In September the online open-access medical journal BMJ published a report prepared by a group of researchers from Hong Kong, Taiwan and the United Kingdom who had collected and analyzed information about suicide rates in more than 50 countries. These mental health statisticians were interested in finding out if there had been any noticeable increase in suicides in the wake of the global economic crisis, and they wanted to make geographic and demographic comparisons to determine whether certain regions and population subgroups had responded more drastically to changing financial situations.
To the surprise of no one, the data collected by this international research team confirmed that international suicide rates had jumped dramatically in 2009, when the effects of the global economic recession were being felt most acutely. Despite some regional variations, increases were seen on all continents and in all nations examined, and overall there were 4,884 more suicides in the 54 countries studied than would have been expected based on the statistics from previous years. Almost all of these additional victims were men -— rates were virtually unchanged for women everywhere — and the nations with the highest levels of job loss experienced greater spikes in the number of suicides than countries impacted more moderately by the international economic collapse.
The Geography and Demography of Desperation
The nations of Central and Eastern Europe saw the largest increase in male suicide rates, at 13.3 percent. In countries such as Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and the former member states of the now-defunct Soviet Union, economic conditions were tenuous even before the onset of global recession, and the soaring aspirations of millions in this still-developing region were dealt a harsh blow by the sudden implosion of the international financial system and the loss of personal wealth and financial security that accompanied this unanticipated catastrophe. The 2009 suicide numbers were not as bleak in the more economically-stable areas of Western Europe, but once the numbers from more recent years are analyzed, no one will be shocked to see a sudden jump in the suicide rate in countries such as Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland that have now become engulfed in the unfolding Eurozone crisis.
In North America, the 2009 increases were not as great as those seen in Central and Eastern Europe but were still notable: The number of men who committed suicide in the United States and Canada surged by 8.9 percent during this turbulent year, and this increase was larger than what was experienced by the nations of Central and South America. Despite the shock of the recession, the economies of North America have remained wealthier than other economies in the hemisphere, but since the sudden earthquake that shook the world’s financial system to its core was largely instigated by the wild speculative practices of the United States banking industry, its immediate impact was felt more profoundly in the areas closest to ground zero. Unemployment jumped by 210 percent in the U.S. between 2006 and 2009, and the psychic trauma associated with so much economic dislocation was obviously significant enough to push many American men over the edge of despair.
There is no clear and definitive explanation as to why so many men have apparently been driven to suicide by global economic troubles while women have not. It should be noted, however, that suicide rates for men are normally three to four times greater than for women regardless of the circumstances.
Two Million Cries for Help Unheard
Analyzing suicide rates might seem like an indirect and imprecise method for measuring stress during times of economic hardship. After all, even in the direst of financial circumstances, most people will not attempt to escape their troubles by killing themselves, and no one would dispute that people who commit suicide have mental health issues that transcend simple economic considerations.
But experts estimate that for every person who takes his or her own life, there will be 40 others who attempt to kill themselves without success. Additionally, the number of people who entertain suicidal thoughts is believed to exceed attempts by a ratio of at least 10 to one. So if we do the math, it means that those 4,884 excess suicides in 54 countries would translate into 2 million suffering souls whose pain and existential discontent became so strong that they came to see suicide as a attractive option. And while it is certainly true that suicidal thoughts generally arise only in the minds of those who are struggling with other mental health problems, we must remember that mental illnesses in the form of depression, anxiety and other partially-debilitating conditions that usually allow people to continue functioning despite their suffering have now reached epidemic levels. So even if economic gusts of ill wind are only dangerous to those who are already standing near the edge of a precipice, in this day and age that category represents an enormous and growing number of people.
The statistics revealed in this newly published scientific study are alarming and significant, and they should be seen as a warning sign to the loved ones of those who have lost their jobs, homes or businesses as a result of this most recent economic downturn. Fortunately, trained professional help is always available for people struggling to overcome depression and anxiety, whatever the cause, and there is no question that for men in particular, economic setbacks are a real risk factor for suicide that we would be wise not to belittle or ignore.