Suicide rates among the under-65s in the European Union (EU) rose markedly between 2007 and 2009, with Greece, Ireland and Latvia rising the most, say researchers who have been taking a first look at how the financial crisis affected deaths in the EU. The period also saw a decrease in road deaths, especially in new member countries, probably due to a greater number of unemployed people making fewer car journeys.

Writing in The Lancet this week, Dr David Stuckler from the University of Cambridge, Professor Martin McKee of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, both in the UK, and Dr Sanjay Basu, from the University of California San Francisco, in the US, and colleagues, say that up to 2007 there had been a steady decline in suicide rates among people aged 65 and under in the EU, but it reversed after that.

Rates of unemployment fell by 2.6% between 2007 and 2009, a 35% relative increase, across the whole of the EU. The reversal in suicide trends coincides with this, say the authors.

They looked at the EU as two groups: the “old” member states, and the “new” ones who joined in 2004, and found that the 2008 increase in suicide from 2007 was less than 1% in the new member states, but nearly 7% in the old ones. And in both groups the rates went up further in 2009.

“Among the countries studied, only Austria had fewer suicides (down 5%) in 2009 than in 2007 [despite a simultaneous increase in unemployment of 0.6%]. In each of the other countries the increase was at least 5%,” they write.

They refer to an earlier paper where they propose that strong social support networks and social protection measures, including active labour market policies, can help prevent suicides, and perhaps this explains the figures for Austria.

In the past, Finland, a country that also has a strong social protection system, has also shown resilience against suicide during times of economic downturn, but in this latest financial crisis, they saw an unexpected increase in suicides of over 5%.

One of the problems the authors faced in their analysis is because data is more detailed from some countries than others, this affects the overall pattern. For instance, among the “old” members, the UK has the biggest influence, and Romania’s data has the biggest effect on the “new” member patterns.

They say they will update their figures as more data becomes available from other countries, but they maintain the current figures are good enough to see that:

“… countries facing the most severe financial reversals of fortune, such as Greece and Ireland, had greater rises in suicides (17% and 13%, respectively) than did the other countries, and in Latvia suicides increased by more than 17% between 2007 and 2008.”

The authors note that road traffic deaths in the EU also fell substantially, particularly in the new member countries, where they were very high at first. Thus deaths on the roads of Lithuania, a new member to the EU, fell rapidly, by almost 50%, whereas in the Netherlands, an “old” member country, where road deaths were already low, they fell hardly at all.

The analysis appears to echo what is happening outside the EU. For instance in the US, road deaths fell by 10% between 2007 and 2009. This is thought to be due to less use of the car at times of higher unemployment.

The fall in road deaths has reduced the availability of organs for transplant. This problem has particularly affected Spain and Ireland, where road deaths have fallen by more than 25% between 2007 and 2009.

Apart from the increase in suicide rates and reduction in road deaths, the authors say they can see no other major deviations from past trends in deaths from all causes.

They conclude that their findings “reveal the rapidity of the health consequences of financial crises”.

The authors are now working on a more detailed analysis of the health effects of the crises, using a number of information sources, including individual level data from European household surveys together with results on the effects various policies.

They want to find out why some individuals, communities and societies seem to be more vulnerable while others appear more resilient to economic shocks. And also how different measures taken by governments influence health.

“There is clearly much more to be written on the health consequences of the events of 2008,” they write.

“Effects of the 2008 recession on health: a first look at European data.”
David Stuckler and others.
The Lancet Vol 378, published online 9 July 2011.

Source : The Lancet Press Office.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD