“Recession and rising unemployment may have led to more than 1,000 suicides in England,” The Independent has reported.
The story comes from a study looking at whether the English regions most affected by the UK’s economic recession period from 2008 to 2010 had seen the greatest increase in suicides in that time.
The study found that in England during this period, there were around 1,000 more suicides than normal, after taking into account previous trends in suicide rates. The gender split was:
- 846 more suicides in men
- 155 more suicides in women
The study’s analysis of suicide data and unemployment figures within different regions found that each 10% increase in the number of unemployed men was significantly associated with a 1.4% increase in male suicides.
The fact that there was such a sharp rise in male suicide may suggest that men are more vulnerable to the adverse effect to mental health that unemployment and job insecurity can bring.
This study cannot definitely prove that the economic downturn and unemployment have directly caused a rise in suicide rates. But in the absence of other factors, it is hard to explain what else could be responsible for this rise.
The research is supported by a wide body of work that found that levels of suicide do increase in times of economic hardship. As the authors said, the study may have important implications for those seeking to protect the most vulnerable people in the ongoing economic recession.
Where did the story come from?
The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Liverpool, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the University of Cambridge. There was no external funding but two of the authors are supported by research fellowships from the National Institute of Health and Medical Research Council.
The study was published in the peer-reviewed British Medical Journal.
It was covered fairly in the papers, although both the Daily Mail and The Sun reported that the recession had caused 1,000 suicides, when the study did not prove this. The authors acknowledged this.
What kind of research was this?
This was a type of observational study called a time trend analysis, which compared the actual number of suicides during the UK recession period of 2008 to 2010 with the number of suicides that might have been expected according to historical trends. A further analysis looked at the association between changes in unemployment and suicides at a regional level.
The authors pointed out that while it is known that in 2008 suicide rates began to rise in the UK, it is not clear whether this increase can be attributed to the economic recession. They also said that while previous research indicates that unemployment increases the risk of suicide, it has often lacked the power to identify underlying factors. This study looks at regional differences in suicide and unemployment between 2000 and 2010, to test the hypothesis that the regions with greater rises in unemployment had corresponding increases in suicides.
They added that a growing number of people may be paying the “ultimate price” for the government’s austerity policy and its large-scale reductions in public sector employment. If such policies are to be pursued and the labour markets deregulated further, they argued, it is essential to know “the price that must be paid by those who will lose their jobs”.
These comments are personal observations rather than statements of fact.
What did the research involve?
The researchers took data on deaths from suicides in 93 regions in England from a national database covering the years 2000 to 2010, to compare trends over the past decade. Deaths from undetermined injuries were also included, to cover cases where the coroner gives an open or narrative verdict rather than using the classification of suicide.
They measured unemployment in all regions as the number of people claiming unemployment benefits within each region, using data provided by the Office for National Statistics.
They then performed two separate statistical analyses. First, they calculated the total number of excess suicides that were over and above historical trends and which therefore might have been attributable to the financial crisis. They pointed out that from 2000 to 2007, suicide rates had been in decline. For 2008 to 2010 they modelled what the numbers might have been had this trend continued and compared this with the actual numbers. They then assessed the association between changes in unemployment (measured by numbers of new job losses, rather than long-term unemployment) with the number of suicides, stratified by region and sex.
What were the basic results?
The researchers found that in England, between 2008 and 2010, there were 846 (95% confidence interval [CI] 818 to 877) more suicides among men than would have been expected if the previous downward trend had continued, and 155 (95% CI 121 to 189) more suicides among women.
From their analysis of suicide rates and unemployment in different regions, they estimated that each 10% increase in the number of unemployed men was significantly associated with a 1.4% (95% CI 0.5% to 2.3%) increase in male suicides.
Among women, there was no significant association between unemployment and suicide rates.
The authors said these findings suggest that about two fifths of the recent increase in suicides among men (329 additional suicides, 95% CI 126 to 532) during the 2008-10 recession can be directly attributed to rising unemployment, with the rest due to job insecurity and related depression. However, they were unable to prove this.
How did the researchers interpret the results?
The researchers suggested that the recent recession has led to around 1,000 more suicides in England within a two-year period: 846 among men and 155 among women. Their analysis suggests that increases in male unemployment were associated with about two fifths of these rises in suicide rates, with local areas with greater rises in unemployment experiencing higher rates in suicides, although this level was only significant among men.
They conceded that their study cannot prove that the association between job loss and an increase in suicide is causal but argued that it is likely to be. They said that there is a danger that the human cost of continued high levels of unemployment will outweigh the “purported benefits of budget cuts”.
This study cannot prove that the job losses during the current recession is causing a rise in the number of suicides.
It’s important to point out that its suggested link between 1,000 suicides and the recession period of 2008 to 2010 is based on a theoretical model of how many suicides might have been expected during this period, given recent trends towards a decline in suicide rates.
It is possible, as the authors said, that other factors may contribute to yearly fluctuations in suicide rates, whether or not associated with the recession.
As the authors acknowledged, their study has some limitations that may affect the accuracy of its figures. For example, unemployment benefits may not accurately reflect the real number of people out of work, while an analysis of suicides in local areas needs interpreting with caution thanks to differing use of verdicts by local coroners.
That said, this was a well-conducted study. Its analysis of suicide rates and unemployment in 93 English regions indicates a significant association between the two, among men.
Its suggestion that job losses may be associated with increases in the suicide rate is of concern and may indeed suggest that vulnerable sections of the population are paying the price of the budget cuts.
- Barr B, Taylor-Robinson D, Scott-Samuel A, et al. Suicides associated with the 2008-10 economic recession in England: time trend analysis. BMJ. Published online August 14 2012