Researchers have said that the 2008 global economic crisis may be to blame for a rise in suicide rates across the Americas and Europe, particularly in males, according to a study published in the BMJ.

The data comes from the World Health Organization (WHO) mortality database, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook database.

Researchers from the Universities of Hong Kong, Oxford and Bristol assessed the changes in suicide rates of 54 countries since the 2008 economic crisis.

In 2008, the International Labour Organization – an agency of the United Nations – estimated that by 2009, the number of unemployed people worldwide would reach around 212 million as a result of the crisis. This is an increase of 34 million, compared with 2007.

The WHO raised concerns about how this would impact global health, calling for action to monitor and protect health, particularly in the poor and vulnerable.

Therefore, unemployment rates were used as the main economic indicator in the study to determine whether there was a significant link to suicide rates.

Starting from the year 2000, the researchers estimated the number of suicide rates using former suicide trends. However, the main analysis focused on “excess” suicide rates in 2009, after the economic crisis hit.

The researchers divided the data into different age categories to determine whether the impact of the crisis varied. These were:

  • 15 – 24 (just entering labor market)
  • 25 – 44 (early years of employment)
  • 45 – 64 (later employment)
  • 65 and over (post retirement).

The data showed that in 2009, there was a 37% rise in unemployment and a 3% decrease in GDP per capita. The researchers said this reflects the onset of the economic crisis. Europe experienced rises in unemployment rates in 2009/10, while the US and Canada saw increases in unemployment from 2008, which rose dramatically in 2009/10.

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After the economic crisis, researchers found that in 2009, male suicide rates increased by 3.3%.

In 2009, male suicide rates increased overall by 3.3%. These increases were highest in 18 American countries studied, showing a 6.4% increased rate, while 27 European countries showed a 4.2% increased male suicide rate.

The largest increase in suicide rates in Europe was seen in men ages 15 to 24, while in America, the highest increase was seen in men aged 45 to 64.

However, there was no change in female suicide rates in 2009 across European countries studied, although the American countries studied showed an increase of 2.3%.

Additionally, in 2009, new EU member states (Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Romania and Slovenia) showed the highest increase in male suicide rates at 13.3%, while the US and Canada revealed an 8.9% increase.

Caribbean and Central American countries showed a 6.4% increase in male suicide rates, while South American countries showed a smaller increase.

The researchers noted that these increases appear to correlate with increases in unemployment, particularly for males and in countries that had low unemployment levels prior to the crisis.

The study authors say:

We found a clear rise in suicide after the 2008 global economic crisis. There were about 4,900 excess suicides in the year 2009 alone compared with those expected based on previous trends (2000-07).

There were important differences in men and women as well as in the age pattern in different groups of countries.”

From these findings, the researchers say there need to be interventions in place to prevent the economic crisis leading to further increases in suicides.

Shu-Sen Chang, research assistant professor at the HKCJ Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention at the University of Hong Kong, said that past research indicates the active labour market program – an intervention aiming to get the unemployed back into work – can help offset some of the impact of economic recessions on suicide.

“Such measures may be usefully targeted on high risk groups, for example young men in Europe. Austerity measures (i.e. cuts in welfare and mental health care) should not be targeted on those most vulnerable in society,” Prof. Chang told Medical News Today.

“General measures may be introduced to increase public and family awareness of the risks associated with economic downturn related stress and encourage help-seeking amongst people in distress. Media reporting of suicide should be sensitive and responsible, avoid simplification such as suggesting recession or unemployment as the only cause of any single suicide death.”

In addition, Prof. Chang noted that recent studies have also shown an increased prevalence of depression or anxiety following the economic crises, particularly in people who had financial problems or unstable unemployment.

She told Medical News Today:

There should be adequate support for people with depression, regardless of the cause of depression, and people with mental illness in general. In time of recessions, cut in social and health care may affect people who need or are receiving such care, including people with depression, the most.”

The researchers noted that their findings are likely to be an underestimate of the true global impact of the economic crisis on suicide rates, as some significant countries were not included.

“The rise in the number of suicides is only a small part of the emotional distress caused by the economic downturn,” they added. “Non-fatal suicide attempts could be 40 times more common than completed suicides, and for every suicide attempt about 10 people experience suicidal thoughts.”