After the release of an exceedingly depressing jobs report this morning, perhaps the last thing I wanted to be reminded about was the fact that financial recessions have health consequences. But, there it was: a team of researchers, writing in the medical journal The Lancet, described the results of an analysis of mortality rates in European countries. The researchers concluded that rising suicide rates, particularly in countries like Ireland and Greece, can be linked to unemployment, stagnant incomes, and other economic causes. The soaring suicide rates are disturbing in and of themselves, but they also signal a myriad of mental health issues lying just below the surface.
From a common-sense standpoint, this isn’t surprising. When people don’t have economic opportunities, it’s understandable that their mental health would suffer. But these numbers, taken from data from 14 EU countries in the period from 2000-2009, are particularly stark. Suicide rates were up 17 percent in Greece and 13 percent in Ireland, two countries that have been hit hardest by Europe’s economic turmoil. For the other countries, the rate could be as low as 5 percent. But, tellingly, suicide rates were actually declining in the years before 2007.
The researchers were not optimistic about their findings. ”Even though we’re starting to see signs of a financial recovery, what we’re now also seeing is a human crisis. There’s likely to be a long tail of human suffering following the downturn,” said David Stuckler, a Cambridge sociologist who worked on the analysis. ”Suicide itself is a relatively rare event,” he added, “but wherever you see a rise in suicides there is also a rise in failed suicide attempts and in new cases of depression.”
It wasn’t all doom and gloom. The researchers argued that the negative effects of economic crises could be mitigated by strong social support networks. Austria, which has these networks, “had a slight decline in suicides despite an increase in unemployment of 0·6 percentage points between 2007 and 2009.” But, strangely enough, Finland, which is also known from its social protection systems, had a 5 percent increase in suicide rates. This hasn’t happened to the Finns in previous recessions, which is alarming.
In the end, it’s clear where new research needs to happen, and it’s heartening to see that the people who wrote this analysis are not just content with reporting the facts. At the end of the article in The Lancet, Stuckler and his colleagues write, “In particular, we want to understand better why some individuals, communities, and entire societies are especially vulnerable yet some seem more resilient to economic shocks as well as the extent to which the very different policy responses being pursued by European governments affect health.”
So although this analysis may seem dire, it could have positive consequences in the end. After all, the more we know about the causes of mental health problems, the more interventions governments can create to help their citizens. This is a tough time financially, both in the United States and Europe, and anything we can do to mitigate depression and desperation can only be good.
Photo: Tony the Misfit via flickr.