Seán Ó Riain’s post and links to the recent British Medical Journal article on suicide and unemployment call for an extended comment, although, as Brian Lucey points out, the topic was discussed in a recent post.
The estimates of the number of suicides attributable to the recession in the BMJ article are based on the trend in suicide rates over the eight years 2000 to 2007 pooled over 54 countries compared with the rates recorded in the years 2008, 2009, and 2010. The discrepancies between the actual and extrapolated rates were used to infer the impact of unemployment: The authors summarize their approach as follows:
To examine whether suicide rates rose more in countries with worse economic downturns, we used Spearman’s correlation coefficients to investigate the association between suicide rate ratios in 2009 and percentage point changes in unemployment rates between 2007 (the baseline year) and 2009 (unemployment rates (in %) in 2009 minus unemployment rates (in %) in 2007 across study countries.
As may be seen from Figure 1 the Irish suicide rate hardly changed between 2007 and 2010 – rising from 10.5 to 10.9 When deaths “due to external causes of undetermined intent” (a category generally viewed as referring predominantly to suicides) are included, the rate actually fell from 13.2 in 2007 to 12.7 in 2010. Looking beyond 2010, using preliminary data based on year of registration, both measures of suicide were stable in 2011 and 2012.
Taking a long-run perspective, the econometric evidence contained in Walsh and Walsh, 2011 shows that the Irish suicide rate has been only weakly correlated with the unemployment rate. Other factors seem to have been at work. For example, the suicide rate rose sharply during the period of falling unemployment in the second half of the 1990s, which coincided with a surge in per capita alcohol consumption. The suicide rate declined during the first half of the noughties – particularly among younger males – coinciding with the start of a steady decline in alcohol consumption.
The following Figure shows the suicide and unemployment rates since the 1960s and brings out the lack of correlation between them. In particular, the recent surge in unemployment seems to have had a surprisingly weak impact on the suicide rate.
While it might be claimed – as is done in the BMJ article – that had unemployment not risen, the suicide rate would have fallen below its present level, but extending the earlier econometric work down to 2012 suggests that the influence of the unemployment rate on suicides has remained relatively weak and confined to males aged 35-54. These age groups account for about 30% of all suicides. Suicide among males in other age groups and among females, which account for 70% of the total, do not appear to be significantly influenced by the unemployment rate.
We must be careful not to attribute too much of our current suicide problem to the downturn in the economy and / or the measures that have been taken to correct our fiscal imbalances.