The global economic crisis that has come to be known as the Great Recession appears to have fueled an increase in suicides, including an estimated 5,000 additional deaths in 2009, a new study says.
Although previous research has linked the recession to higher suicide rates in various countries, no studies have tried to measure these effects on a global scale.
So researchers at the University of Hong Kong and other institutions examined suicide trends in 54 countries around the world, using data on unemployment, gross domestic product and suicide deaths from the World Health Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Their analysis revealed an association between unemployment and suicide rates, which was especially strong for men in countries that used to have low unemployment.
In 2009 alone, 37% higher unemployment seems to have fueled a 3.3% increase in the global suicide rate for men, according to the study, published online Tuesday by the journal BMJ. That 3.3% uptick translates into an additional 5,000 deaths.
An estimated 2,700 to 3,700 of those additional deaths occurred in 18 countries in the Americas, where the overall suicide rate jumped 6.4%, as the unemployment rate rose up to 101%, the study found.
Another 2,400 to 3,500 additional deaths were recorded in 27 European countries, where the suicide rate rose 4.2% as the unemployment rate rose by as much as 35%.
Relatively few additional suicides were tallied in Asia and Africa.
In American countries, the greatest increase in suicides was seen in men between the ages of 45 and 64. In Europe, the biggest increase was in 15- to 24-year-old men.
The researchers saw no change in the global suicide rate for women, although there was a slight increase in suicides among women from the Americas.
The team found bigger increases in suicide rates in countries that used to have low unemployment.
David Gunnell, a public health researcher at the University of Bristol in England who helped lead the study, said men were probably more inclined than women to commit suicide because they tend to be the breadwinners of their families and therefore felt more pressure in the face of the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. Men are also more likely to commit suicide in general.
This type of observational study can’t prove that higher unemployment caused the additional suicides, Gunnell said. However, the results are consistent with earlier research linking unemployment to higher rates of depression, offering “strong evidence” that the recession was the culprit.
The findings serve as a warning that countries should not cut back on mental health services in times of austerity, Gunnell said. The results also identify people who are at-risk, which could help public health officials target their intervention efforts.
However, the study doesn’t provide a complete picture of the recession’s effect on mental health, since it included only the 54 countries for which statistics were available, said José Tapia, a public health researcher at the University of Michigan who wasn’t involved in the study. What’s more, the study analyzed suicide rates only from 2000 through 2009, so the results may not reflect current trends.
“This is by no means the final word on the magnitude of the global economic crisis,” Gunnell said.