Suicide and the Great Recession: Will we heed the tragic warnings?

In this era of the Great Recession, suicide has become a leading cause of death in America, especially among the middle-aged, and it is to our shame as a society that this reality is not an ongoing, dominant focus of our attention.

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report documenting the alarming crisis:

From 1999 to 2010, the age-adjusted suicide rate for adults aged 35–64 years in the United States increased significantly by 28.4%, from 13.7 per 100,000 population to 17.6 . . . . The suicide rate for men aged 35–64 years increased 27.3%, from 21.5 to 27.3, and the rate for women increased 31.5%, from 6.2 to 8.1 . . . . Among men, the greatest increases were among those aged 50–54 years and 55–59 years, (49.4%, from 20.6 to 30.7, and 47.8%, from 20.3 to 30.0, respectively). Among women, suicide rates increased with age, and the largest percentage increase in suicide rate was observed among women aged 60–64 years (59.7%, from 4.4 to 7.0).

The report prompted a lot of media coverage upon its release, but now it has faded into the shadows of the news cycle.

Boomer suicides and the economy

Suzanne Gerber, blogging for Next Avenue, associated the dire economic situation and related pressures with rising suicides rates among Boomers:

Noting that suicide rates tend to rise during times of financial stress — and 2008 might go down in the history books as one of the worst years in modern American history — Dr. Ileana Arias, CDC deputy director, acknowledged, “The increase does coincide with a decrease in financial standing for a lot of families over the same time period.”

Arias further observed that the spike in suicide rates could be a reflection of a combination of stressors specific to baby boomers. As the sandwich generation, many of us, while fighting our own financial battles, are also taking caring of aging parents, many with dementia, and providing economic and emotional support to our adult children, who are having difficulties launching their own independent lives.

Thomas H. Maugh II, in a 2011 piece for the Los Angeles Times, reported on an earlier CDC study indicating that among working people ages 25-54, suicides increase during bad economic times and decline during more prosperous times.

Everyone is familiar with stories of businessmen jumping to their deaths from window ledges during the Great Depression. New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that those stories, sometimes viewed as apocryphal, have a strong basis in fact: The rate of suicides rises during times of economic hardship and declines in periods of prosperity.

The earlier CDC study included statistics from the Great Depression of the early 1930s and subsequent economic crises. As Maugh further reported:

Overall, the study — which did not distinguish between men and women — found that the suicide rate was 18 per 100,000 adults in 1928, the earliest year for which data are available, and climbed to 22.1 per 100,000 in 1932, the last full year of the Great Depression. That 22.8% jump over a four-year period is the largest in history.

Since then, the suicide rate has been dropping, with much smaller increases at the end of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal (1937-38), the oil crisis (1973-75) and the double-dip recession (1980-82).

As I have written previously here, when reporter Louis Uchitelle began researching his book The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences (2006), he did not anticipate that he “would be drawn so persistently into the psychiatric aspect of layoffs.”  But he soon understood that the “emotional damage was too palpable to ignore.”  For the suddenly unemployed, “a layoff is an emotional blow from which very few fully recover.”

Not “Set for Life”

The emotional costs of unemployment are vividly evident in a disturbing and important 2012 documentary, “Set for Life,” which tells the stories of Baby Boomers who have lost their jobs and who are trying to find work in the midst of our recessionary economy.

“Set for Life” is the work of journalist and producer Susan Sipprelle, assisted by filmmaker Samuel Newman (bios here). It centers on the ongoing sagas of three fiftysomething individuals searching for work, supplemented by interviews with experts and information that put their stories in context.

In an October Huffington Post blog post introducing the documentary, Sipprelle observes that having worked hard and done many of the right things, her protagonists believed that they were “set for life.” However, recent years have taught them a harsh lesson to the contrary:

While the three main characters in Set for Life search for work in today’s daunting job market for older workers, they suffer financial woes, self-doubt, and health concerns. Thrust by the recession into a quest they never expected to face late in life, they ponder deeper questions that are relevant to everyone: What defines my self-worth? What is my definition of happiness? Can I reinvent myself? Can I prepare for and accept change?

Retirement

As I have written often here, the idea of a relatively comfortable and stable retirement is disappearing for many middle-aged Americans. According to economist Teresa Ghilarducci, one of the nation’s leading experts on retirement policy, “(i)t looks like most middle-class Americans will become poor or near-poor retirees,” adding that “(t)he baby boomers will be the first generation that will do worse in retirement than their parents.”

Ghilarducci’s comments appeared last year in The Week, a weekly news magazine, as part of an informative piece spotlighting a largely neglected Boomer retirement savings crisis. Unfortunately, most workers have not built 401(k) accounts sufficient to fund a comfortable retirement; the average 401(k) balance “is just over $60,000,” according to The Week. Even worse, “(m)ore than half of U.S. workers have no retirement plan at all.” Social Security payments “averaging $14,780 a year for individuals and $22,000 for couples” won’t bridge the gaps.

In sum, for many workers, the American Dream is no more. The assumption that working hard and playing by the rules would lead to a decent job and a relatively comfortable retirement has been demolished. Unless we do something dramatic, many Boomers are staring at what Thoreau termed as “lives of quiet desperation.”

Student loan debt and suicides

It’s not just older workers who might feel crushing economic burdens and see little way out. Cryn Johannsen of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project writes about the spectre of suicide in connection with student debt:

Suicide is the dark side of the student lending crisis and, despite all the media attention to the issue of student loans, it’s been severely under-reported. I can’t ignore it though, because I’m an advocate for people who are struggling to pay their student loans, and I’ve been receiving suicidal comments for over two years and occasionally hearing reports of actual suicides.

Student loan levels have skyrocketed over the past three decades, and now the labor market is not producing enough good entry-level jobs to absorb heavily-indebted graduates, many of whom owe $100,000 or more in principal alone.

Europe

If we need more evidence of this deeply human crisis, the meltdown of the European economy has been linked to rising suicide rates of workers who see no escape from their plight.

Last year, Barbie Latza Nadeau reported for Newsweek (link here) on increasing suicide rates in countries such as Italy, Greece, Spain, and Ireland – all of which have been in the throes of severe economic crises even worse than that in the U.S. She observes that “(i)n the countries most affected by the euro-zone crisis, depression is on the rise and suicides are spreading.” In addition, amid widespread unemployment in these countries, governments are cutting back on social support services for the jobless and those in need of assistance:

“The main reason for the rise in suicides is the recession and now austerity—both making hard times more difficult and reducing funding for mental-health services,” says David Stuckler, a Cambridge professor who coauthored a report on the health effects of the economic crisis in Europe. “Usually an epidemic is thought of as a short-term increase in a disease—by that criterion, suicides would be an epidemic.”

Nadeau began her piece with three stories of three Italian workers who committed suicide due to their personal financial struggles. I suggest checking it out if you want a clearer sense of the human costs of the recession.

“The Lives of Others”

In the motion picture “The Lives of Others” — a dark depiction of life in communist East Berlin before the fall of the Berlin Wall — we learn that the East German government stopped counting suicides in 1977. Instead, people who died by suicide were called “self-murderers.”

It was an easy way of dismissing the widespread despair and fear caused by an inhumane system that contributed to the world’s second highest suicide rate. East Germany, of course, was under a communist rule that sucked freedom and enterprise out of everyday society. When life under that oppressive regime caused people to sink into hopelessness, the government decided it was time to blame the victims.

To some, this historical factoid might justify touting unbridled capitalism as a panacea to heavy-handed government. However, while I have little use for communist systems, America’s suicide statistics remind us that extreme despair transcends economic and political ideologies.

Response I: Creating jobs and reinforcing our safety net

We have to create jobs, while maintaining programs for those in need.

When America faced the Great Depression of the 1930s, the federal government enacted the New Deal legislation that created a stronger social safety net, including the minimum wage, Social Security, and public insurance for our bank accounts. It also created massive public works programs, funding everything from construction projects to artistic works. Ironically, it was this influx of government spending, followed by the huge increase in public expenditures necessary to fight the Second World War, that saved capitalism and put America on path for its greatest era of prosperity.

Today, many large corporations are sitting on piles of cash, and the stock market has fully recovered from the massive hit it took during the meltdown. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate improves in tiny, incremental steps at best.

It’s not as if we’ve run out of important, meaningful work that needs to be done. If corporate America and Wall Street won’t create jobs despite their abundant earnings, then let’s tax their wealth and use the proceeds to put people back to work, fixing our bridges and roads, building connective public transportation systems, educating our children, providing affordable health care, safeguarding our communities, and caring for our elderly.

Response II: Forging a healthier society

More broadly, we need to forge a society that too often worships individualism and selfishness into one that more deeply values community, dignity, opportunity, and peace of mind. As Suzanne Gerber states:

Whether it’s biochemical or situational, the net result is the same: People are stressed to the max, financially struggling, pessimistic about their prospects and don’t have the traditional means of support previous generations relied on to get them through wars, epidemics and economic downturns.

In the past, people had family and community to turn to for support and strength and hope. Today we’re a fractured society, with families strewn around the country or globe, and our ancestors’ belief that “family is glue” all but eroded. Even people who didn’t have close family had strong religious convictions or a network of neighbors. We’re a Velcro society, and we all know what a weak substitute that is.

Suicide is a scary, intimidating, and complicated topic, and it makes many of us uneasy. But a nation’s suicide rates should be among the prime indicators of its collective health and well-being. We need to “own” these statistics, understand what’s behind them, and do our best to respond to them. This will enhance our lives a lot more than obsessing over stock market reports and enabling corporations whose leaders don’t give a hoot about the rest of us.

***

This blog posts builds upon, draws from, and integrates a good half dozen pieces written over the past two years. It is a sad testament to the state of things that the ties between mental health, suicide, and the economy continue to be so relevant. 

5 responses

  1. Thanks, David, for a passionate, insightful column.

    I heard George Packer read last night form his new book, “The Unwinding.” He refers to the “hallowing out of the middle class,” especially in middle America, and the crumbling of almost every institution in the country. He also noted we should call this Recession what it is — a Depression.

  2. Thanks, David. Always enjoy your posts. Begs for a deeper thinking. Evangelicals, I believe, have some blood on their hands in mental illness and the spiritual depression we’re in. Remember doing a masters thesis in Political Science in early ’80s on how the New Right and Moral Majority co-opted them at that 1980 election to “turn this country around.” It unleashed corpocracy, radical capitalism, and the shallowness of values we’re all enduring today.

    Thus evangelicals and their “vast heat,” I feel, need to be the point group to look to in reversing this awful trend. Their first act could be simply admitting “we were snookered” by the 1% elitists into hallowing out America, just to line the pocket books of a greedy, extremist political class who, in hindsight, had seen a wealth of opportunities opening up with the Sun Belt movement that they’d wanted to capitalize on.

    On the recent death of mega-church Pastor Rick Warren’s son, I wrote a story (http://desertmountaintimes.com/2013/04/recruitment-campaign-against-depression-suicides-shifts-to-evangelicals/#more-1386) essentially arguing this. The tea leaves seem to be lining up for changing views or at least looking deeper at mental illness and suicides now.. In addition to more and more evangelical leaders calling for a reform, the Catholic Church has reversed its longtime teaching that suicide was a one-way ticket to hell and urging parishioners to pray for such victims and their families. Thus maybe there’s enough good left in us to turn this thing around after all. Just thinking.

  3. David, thanks so much for this one. Recently, I had the chance to watch the documentary Set for Life, that you mention above. As someone who was and is still under the gun of what started in 2008, it really hit home. I watched it twice in one morning. Very powerful (and disheartening) stuff — reality for some of us.

    The film even touches upon how layoffs can affect physical health. God forbid that you were already chronically ill during your career (severe, relentless stress makes most chronic illnesses worsen), and/or your company used bullying tactics to get rid of you. If so, chances for full physical recovery seem to be very slim. Just this year I am finally, just barely, starting to find my way out of the financial aspects of this nightmare. But the physical damage is now permanent.

    • Creda – We are sorry to learn about your employment and financial setbacks. By official count, there are still 4.7 million long-term unemployed in the U.S., and they are mostly 50-plus. Of course, the real number is considerably larger. The issue is now mostly ignored in DC, but the impact of prolonged unemployment on individuals and their families is devastating. Thank you for watching our film, Set for Life. We are doing our best to help. Sue Sipprelle, producer of Set for Life

  4. Thank you for a very well-written, and concise article on what is happening to the 50+ population, especially if they lose their job. The student loan debt crisis is a tragic consequence of the greed of the student loan “loan sharks” and now the 50+ are paying back their 75K plus student loans after 20 years of compounding interest facing debts of 350K from the principal and interest. Forgive the loan? Yes, but what about the tax on the forgiven part? By the time the loan matures the tax due on the forgiven part is approximately equal to the initial loan to begin with. Since the government can seize their social security for this, what exactly are these people going to do? Is any one in Congress looking at this looming dilemma?

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