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Economic hardship causes suicide-rate increase, experts speculate

by Alexandra Gallucci
Feb 28, 2012


Alex Gallucci/MEDILL

The rate of suicide in the U.S. has increased every year since 2005, according to CDC data.

The rate of suicide in the U.S., steadily going up almost every year since 2000, has reached its highest rate in 15 years, an increase that experts say may be a reflection of the nation’s economic hardship.

The recently released 2009 data – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention routinely reports suicide data two years later – showed a 2.4 percent increase in the rate from 2008.

“The recent increase in suicide, whether heightened by economic strain or other social triggers, signifies the need for education and training on understanding and preventing suicide,” said Lisa Firestone, a clinical psychologist whose specialty is researching causes and prevention of suicide.

In 2008, 13.4 percent of people who committed suicide had been experiencing job and financial problems, said Firestone, who is director of research and education at The Glendon Association, a non-profit that promotes suicide prevention.

Her recent paper, “Suicide Prevention in Rough Economic Times,” published in the January/February edition of The California Psychologist, sought to highlight the key understandings of suicide psychology that may help professionals to save lives.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline reported a 14 percent increase in call volume between 2010 and 2011.

Ninety percent of suicides are the result of a diagnosable mental illness, experts say. The three leading disorders that cause suicide are: bipolar disorder and depression, alcohol abuse, and schizophrenia, said Firestone, who noted that nearly 50 percent of suicides occur under the influence of alcohol.

“What we’re finding as well is that people are relying more heavily on drug treatments for suicide and less on psychotherapy, and I don’t think suicide can be treated solely by drugs,” said Firestone.

Triggers of suicide can vary depending on age, said David Castro-Blanco, a professor at the Adler School of Professional Psychology in Chicago. Bullying, for instance, is a common driver of teen suicide, but is not as relevant in adults.

The elderly are the fastest-growing group by age in terms of suicide, said Castro-Blanco. The contributors to this rise, which he suspects are also related to economic downturn, are certainly worth investigating, he said.

Suicide is also on the rise is in the military. Since 2010, more military servicemen have committed suicide than died in combat.

Suicide remains the third-leading cause of death in 15-24 year olds, but the rate has been declining in recent years.

While we do know that the overall numbers of suicides have jumped, current data does not tell us where and what has caused the increase, said Castro-Blanco.

While there historically has been a correlation of high rates of suicide in times of economic crisis—such as the Great Depression—there is no current data to support that hypothesis.

“It’s less about depression itself and more about desperation and hopelessness,” said Castro-Blanco. “If we can figure out what caused that desperation and hopelessness, we can get further along with trying to intervene with it,“ he said.

The problem of old data is an ongoing source of frustration, said Steve Moore, a member of the Board of Directors of the Illinois Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Additionally, the CDC must rely on county coroners to reporting deaths by suicide accurately. Since the most current data available is only from 2009, the effects of the recession are just beginning to be reflected.

A program initiated by AFSP – it’s called More than Sad – provides education for both teachers and teens about factors that put youth at risk for suicide. Illinois law now mandates that teachers receive training in suicide prevention.