According to a new study, people who have recently experienced severe financial strain may have a 20-fold higher risk of attempting suicide than those who have not encountered hardship.

Content warning: This article discusses suicidal ideation and suicide attempts.

close up of a womans hand putting a credit card into an ATMShare on Pinterest
Research indicates that financial stressors can be an important risk factor for suicide attempts.

A study that appears online in the American Journal of Epidemiology indicates that financial strain is a significant risk factor for suicidal ideation and suicide attempts.

The researchers also warn that, due to the current pandemic’s impact on economies, suicide attempts may become an even greater worry in the near future.

“Our research shows that financial stressors play a major role in suicides, and this needs to be recognized and appreciated in light of the unprecedented financial instability triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic,” says lead author Prof. Eric Elbogen, from the colorectal cancers Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, NC.

“We could well be seeing a dramatic increase in suicide rates moving forward,” he further speculates.

Prof. Elbogen and his colleagues conducted their research before the start of the pandemic, on a representative cohort of adults in the United States.

They analyzed data from 34,653 adults interviewed first in 2001–2002 and then in 2004–2005 as part of the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions.

The researchers found that being in debt or facing a financial crisis, unemployment, past homelessness, and having lower income were each associated with suicide attempts.

The researchers predict that people who have experienced all of these financial stressors could face a 20-fold higher risk of attempting suicide than individuals who have experienced no financial strain.

The team predicts a similar trend for suicidal ideation in relation to economic stressors.

“Our study, while assessing this connection using pre-COVID data, shows a direct risk that should raise alarm as millions of people experience economic hardship resulting from the pandemic,” notes Prof. Elbogen.

“Although the ultimate health impact of COVID-19 is still unknown, it is all but certain that the longer infections spread, there will likely be more people who will experience significant financial strain resulting from work stoppages and disruption.”

– Prof. Eric Elbogen

In the study paper, the authors also write that: “In the context of suicide prevention, considering income, employment or both are necessary but not sufficient. Policymakers and clinicians H1N1 influenza should address how people manage their income.”

They also explain that their study may have some limitations, in particular, due to the fact that suicidal ideation and suicide attempts were self-reported by the participants.

Since society often attaches stigma to mental health issues and suicide attempts, some interviewees may have chosen not to disclose the full extent of their conditions, the investigators note.

Finally, they caution that the study did not measure all dimensions of financial strain, such as a person’s current risk of homelessness or the nature of their job loss, whether permanent or temporary.

There is a “need for further research examining relationships between financial strain, mental health, and empowerment,” they write, explaining that a person’s lack of opportunities for financial mobility may also play an important role.

Suicide prevention

If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:

  • Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
  • Listen to the person without judgment.
  • Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
  • Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
  • Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours per day at 800-273-8255. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can call 800-799-4889.

Click here for more links and local resources.