Suicide and the Recession – again

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.

10 replies on “Suicide and the Recession – again”

@Brendan Walsh

I thought the suggestion was that it was taking over as the major reason for suicide (much as in the way you suggest that booze did in earlier years) – not so much that it was increasing the number of suicides?

PR Guy, what the BMJ authors do is to estimate the trend for suicide using 2000-2007 data, then look at outcomes for 2009 (they focus on 2009 as the first full year of the recession) and see how much suicide is above what their model would have predicted. This gives a figure of “excess suicides” and they then look at the correlation between excess suicides and the change in unemployment. So I think the idea is that excess suicides are being assigned to the recession, not that the recession is necessarily the major cause of suicide.

@David Madden

Apologies – I was talking about ‘common knowledge’ rather than the more scientific approaches of the BMJ.

I’ll get my coat….


could you do a simple correlation calculation, lets say from 1980 or 1990 on.

It looks like MINUS 0.8 or so.

Is there any micro data available, in Ireland or elsewhere, to tell us whether unemployed people disproportionately account for those committing suicide, rather than relying on macro correlations?

Doctors in Ireland are reluctant to give suicide as the reason for a death. I believe this is in part to avoid insurance complications and to preserve the family’s dignity.
Based on what I have seen the actual suicide rate would be much higher than the reported rate.

@Mickey Hickey
Yes, there is a problem with suicide statistics because this category involves an inference about the motive for the death and not just a medical judgment about the cause of death. You will see that in Figure 1 I included the category ‘deaths from external causes of unintended intent’. These probably capture most – but not all – of the cases you have in mind.
This issue bedevils international comparisons. A higher proportion of suicides are probably not reported as such in Greece than in Sweden, for example. It should have less impact on the year-to-year movement in deaths recorded as suicides in an indiviual country.

@Robert Sweeney
Yes, numerous studies have found that at a point of time the unemployed (and non-employed) are at greater risk of suicide than the employed. Some studies (in Ireland and internationally) report a very large differential. The difficulty is that this cross-sectional differential does not seem to transfer into the time series.
To put it simply, if the relative risk of suicide (unemployed / employed) remained stable, then a three-fold rise in the numbers unemployed would be reflected in a very noticeable jump in the suicide rate. This has not happened.

That should be ‘death from external causes of undetermined intent’.
The classification of deaths is the responsibility of the coroner. Where suicide is suspected I understand they place a lot of weight on the opinion of the Gardai.

There is an interesting Freakonomics podcast about the economics of suicide – it seems that suicide is actual positively linked with economic growth and employment – people are driven to suicide when more people around them are happy and doing well, making there own state seem relatively worse.

Its easier when we’re all in it together – maybe why suicides seem to be falling as unemployment rises

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