After two decades of decline, the suicide rate in Great Britain began rising in 2008, mystifying researchers. Now, a new study finds that that nation's financial crisis may help explain the sudden reversal, linking rising unemployment geographically with hikes in suicides.
Writing in the British Medical Journal, a team of public health researchers found that between 2008 and 2010, Great Britain's worsening financial crisis and rising unemployment rate coincided with almost 1,000 suicides above expected levels. The economic downturn and resulting unemployment among men could account for as much as 39% of that increase in suicides among men -- 326 suicides in total -- they concluded.
For women, the researchers found a weak relationship between rising unemployment rates and increasing suicide.
While suicide can rarely be explained by a single factor, the link between economic downturn and a hike in suicide rates has long been suspected. A study released last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked at the period 1928 to 2007 and found that U.S. suicide rates rose and fell in tandem with the nation's business cycle. Mental health professionals have long linked their patients' job loss or sudden changes in financial status with depression and suicide risk.
To discern the pattern in Britain and put a number to the added suicides that might be linked to economic downturn, the researchers looked at regional differences in unemployment patterns and found that they tracked closely with regional changes in suicides.
"On its own, our study cannot ascertain whether the association between job loss and suicides is causal," the researchers wrote. "However, the strength of the effect size, the timing, consistency, coherence with previous research, existence of plausible mechanisms and absence of any alternative explanations suggests that it is likely to be."
In a discussion with strong political overtones as well as implications for several of Europe's battered economies, the public health researchers who conducted the analysis said that cutbacks in public spending appeared to have a powerful effect on suicides. In addition to driving down public-sector employment, they also limit access to preventive services, they write. With unemployment expected to continue at a high rate until 2017, the researchers suggested that suicides in Britain will likely remain elevated.