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Death and Joblessness: How Suicide Dogs the Long-Term Unemployed

by Annie Lowery

He hit "publish" on the last Wednesday in July, in the middle of a long afternoon. "I also have become homeless and am on the verge of suicide. I slept out in the wood last night and didn't gett very much sleep. I hate to bring you people down with my problems but I thought you would like to know this. I don't know what else to say except I'm very sorry it turned out like this but I can take the strain of living like this very much longer." (All posts are reproduced as published.)

A photograph taken after a protest in Grand Rapids, Mich. (Creative Commons) The post went up as part of a conversation about homelessness on Unemployed-Friends, a popular online forum for the unemployed to connect with one another. Most were discussing how to live in homeless shelters after eviction or foreclosure. But his post went further. "This is killing me physically and emotoinally. I am at the end of my rope and getting to the point of letting go. I have tried everything I know to get help. DHS won't help' Salvation Army won't help. 211 won't help. I have no idea as to where to go from here. If you don't hear from me by tomorrow I probably will be dead."

Thousands of users visit the web site daily, offering one another everything from advice about applying for unemployment insurance benefits to emotional support. It is one of dozens of such sites helping the nation's 14.6 million unemployed - particularly the long-term unemployed, the 6.6 million Americans who have been out of work for more than six months. "I am very tempted to walk in front of an oncoming semi right now. Sorry to go on ranting but I am getting to the point where I feel I have no choice. For those of you that want to know I am currently in Grand Rapids. I appreciate your words of encouragement but right now it doesn't seem to be enough to keep me going."

The post ended, "I will try to tough out another night. Goodbye for now."

***

The unemployed commit suicide at a rate two or three times the national average, researchers estimate. And in many cases, the longer the spell of unemployment, the higher the likelihood of suicide.

On online fora such as Unemployed-Friends, the topic comes up often, users finding news reports or hearing tell of deaths in their community, and mourning them. There was the Staten Island suicide, where an emergency medical services employee who thought himself about to be fired posted his final words on Facebook: "I can't go on anymore. I just hung myself." In Anaheim, Calif., there was the man underwater on his mortgage and awash in credit card debt who shot his wife and and one of his children before himself. His two children survived. His wife did not. In Indiana, there was the middle-aged mother who sent her daughter out to buy soda and killed herself before her daughter came back. That happened the day after the repossession of her Chevy Malibu.

Other stories are more apocryphal. In a post that ginned up dozens of comments and thousands of views on Unemployed-Friends, someone reported a father of three in Michigan had killed himself, writing in his final letter, "I am sorry, I have now lost every ounce of pride I ever had. You will be better off without me." (The report of the suicide is unconfirmed.) A colleague told me he knew of a local man who killed himself when his unemployment insurance ended, because when his unemployment insurance ended he had no way to pay his child support.

The stories appear in letters to Congress as well. "My dad, S, killed himself March 16, 2009 because he ran out of money and could not find work. My whole family had been devastated by the economy. He was 61 years old and could not take it anymore. He could not figure out how to keep the electric on, buy food, or keep a roof over his head. A day before his electric was to be shut off, and 2 weeks away from eviction, my dad took the hardest walk of his life. He left a note on the dining room table for my sister and I. His suicide letter said ‘I love you. I had to do this. I ran out of money. I wish you both luck in your lives'. He left the door unlocked with the door key left in the lock. He carefully laid out two suits for us to pick from to bury him in," one person from Forest Hills, N.Y., wrote to Rep. Anthony Weiner (D). "I almost caught my dad in time, maybe another 10 minutes and I could have saved him."

The stories show the deeper wounds of unemployment, and especially long-term unemployment. It is not just the loss of a job, but the loss of community, routine and purpose. It means worse health. It means higher rates of divorce. It means alcohol abuse. All of these are also risk factors for suicide.

***

The users of Unemployed-Friends knew these stories. And they knew this shame and suffering, knew it well enough to take it seriously, for fear of what it can make people do. The web site goes so far as to keep suicide prevention hotline numbers at the top of every page. So when the note from user Vidirian2001 published to the forum, the virtual community realized it had little time to prevent a real-world death. The first reply begged Vidirian to call emergency services. Others suggested a clinic or the hospital.

"Please take the advice of the posters here - we care about you - even if we don't know you personally - anyone can feel the way you are feeling - we are all facing hard times," one wrote. "Please Please - I am in tears reading your story." They said they were crying and praying for the anonymous poster, and told their own stories of survival. One posted Psalms.

Some asked if any fellow Michiganders would go find the user, to help him or her.

Vidirian2001 did not respond until the next morning. "Hello people. Today doesn't seem to be much better. For those of you that would like to know I am in Grand Rapids MI . If I can't get any help soon I will follow through with my plans. I also have tried calling suicide prevention and they just transferred me to some one else who then dropped the call. I have no blood relatives I can count on. The friends I do have are supportive but can't/won't help me. I am crying right now because I feel there is no way out."

***

There is no saying how many suicides the recession has caused.

During the Great Depression, the suicide rate increased about 20 percent, from 14 to 17 per 100,000 people. The Asian economic crisis in 1997 led to an estimated 10,400 additional suicides in Japan, Hong Kong and Korea, with suicides spiking more than 40 percent among some demographic groups. But such statistics can mislead, social scientists say. Joblessness does not cause suicide. Rather, it correlates: Depressed persons tend to lose their jobs due to poor work performance, and a few also commit suicide. Jobless people tend to turn to alcohol, worsening their depression, and increasing the chances that they harm themselves. Still, academic studies show that suicide rates tend to move with the unemployment rate. Researchers in New Zealand found that the unemployed were up to three times as likely to commit suicide, with middle-aged men the most likely.

So how many suicides are associated with the recession? Nobody knows, not yet. The statistics lag about three years, so the official Center for Disease Control numbers still predate the financial crisis. Right now, therefore, the reports remain anecdotal.

But looking at individual counties' or cities' data, there are ominous signs of a real spike. Some counties show no change. Others show dramatic climbs. In rural Elkhart County, Ind., where the unemployment rate is 13.7 percent, there were nearly 40 percent more suicides in 2009 than in a normal year. In Macomb County, Mich., where the unemployment rate is also 13.7 percent, an average of 81 people per year committed suicide between 1979 and 2006. That climbed to 104 in 2008 and to more than 180 in 2009.

The suicide prevention hotlines also show signs of stress. In Jan. 2007, as the recession started, there were 13,423 calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a nationwide toll-free hotline. A year later, there were 39,467. In Aug. 2009, the call volume peaked at 57,625. Last year, the government granted the group an extra $1 million to increase programs in places with high unemployment rates.

***

By Thursday, the posters on Unemployed-Friends knew more about the user known as Vidirian2001. They had gone back to his first post, which went up in June. "Hello everyone. I am Scott I am 45 years old. I have been out of work for over 3 1/2 years. I am getting to the end of my rope. Yesterday, the postman came to the door with a letter for me to sign for. I thought it was something to do with my parents property which is in forclosure. It turns out my wife of 7 years is filing for divorce and is kicking me out of the apartment."

Rapidly, they pieced identifying details together: Scott, male, 45, estranged. They knew he lived in Grand Rapids, Mich., where the unemployment rate is 11.1 percent. They knew that he posted from a library somewhere in Grand Rapids. They knew he was suicidal, but still reaching out. They knew they had to help him.

Users started calling all of the libraries in Grand Rapids in real time, asking the workers to go find him. Another called the Grand Rapids Police Department's non-emergency line, providing them with all of the information about Scott and his known whereabouts. Another called the Michigan suicide prevention office. Along with the librarians and the police, they managed to get Scott, still suicidal, to a hospital for urgently needed medical care.

And one user living in Traverse City, hours from Grand Rapids but within driving distance, offered Scott a place to stay to get him off of the streets. "I think it would be better for someone(my son) to pick him up than have him travel alone by bus- he is too vulnerable at this point for the trip alone. We are already rearranging our dining area so we can make him a make shift room of his own so he will have some kind of privacy. My hubby is hoping he likes to fish cause that will give him a new fishing partner!" she wrote.

"For all offering to help pay for this I will get back with you if we need any help with gas money but I think we have enough gas in our van to make the trip I am 126 miles away and I get really good mileage and a couple of my kids are willing to help with money if we need it."

***

The governmental statistics on suicide, unemployment and the relationship between the two are surprisingly thin.

Amy Rowland, a spokesperson for the CDC Injury Center, acknowledges as much, noting a bump in the suicide rate for older male workers. "Studies done by other researchers show that economic strain and loss are risk factors for suicide." she says. "However more studies need to be done to better understand what might be occurring in this age group that is contributing to these increases and how we can best control and prevent it."

Economists Richard Dunn of Texas A&M University and Timothy Classen of Loyola University Chicago are conducting some of those studies. They wanted to pinpoint the effect joblessness had on suicide rates. The problem was sorting out correlation and causation, as many people lose their jobs for depression or alcoholism or drug abuse, which in turn increase the risk of suicide. The economists, of course, could not fire people at random and then track them. So they looked for natural experiments, where workers were fired for reasons other than job performance. They zeroed in on mass layoffs, like when a factory closes and thousands of workers find themselves suddenly unemployed.

Unemployment, they found, does increase the risk of suicide. And not just once, but twice: First, just after the factory shuts down, and then again, about six months later, when unemployment insurance ends. The impact is strongest among men. Dunn explains: "If you had laid off 4,000 [men] initially, one would have killed himself immediately, within a month, and six months later, another person would have killed himself."

"We don't expect all 4,000 people to remain unemployed in month six," Dunn continues. "It is probably 2,000 or 1,000 people who are. So the research suggests that the impact of losing your unemployment benefits is actually stronger than the impact of losing your job. How much stronger? We don't know. But twice as strong, three times as strong. Some significant difference."

That is to say, duration of unemployment and loss of unemployment benefits are more important determinants of suicide risk than job loss itself.

***

I spoke with Scott on the phone this week, his voice affectless, his sentences matter-of-fact and declarative, his mood impossible to read. The first thing he told me is that he continues to struggle with suicidal thoughts.

He explains what happened on the day of his post: He was sitting at a kiosk on the computer, considering whether to throw himself in front of a semi or to go "dance with a train," the words delivered to me as if he were noting the weather. Suddenly, the police approached him in the library and took him to a nearby hospital. Most persons threatening suicide must remain in the hospital for at least 24 hours of observation. Scott says that the hospital released him in an hour, with numbers for services to call. He promised them that he would go get counseling. He spent another night homeless, sleeping on a cement slab in the back of his former apartment building. "There was a patio back where I used to live, so I went there," he says.

"After that, the people I'm staying with - well, their sons - they came and got me. I had counseling set up in Grand Rapids, but I'm in Traverse City now. I'm not going to go 150 miles -150 each way, a two and a half hour drive - for counseling." He is not currently in therapy, and does not have ready access to medical care.

We talk about his former life. He has struggled with depression for decades. It runs in his family. His mother and father both suffered from it, too. He was a wood worker and furniture maker, but the industry has left Michigan for China and Malaysia. Still, he had a wife and an apartment, food on the table. But he lost his job. Earlier this summer, his wife left and evicted him, leaving him destitute and homeless. Now, he is living with a family that found him on a message board, in a makeshift bedroom in their home. Both the husband and wife are unemployed themselves. They are hoping to sell their house if they can, and move out of Michigan to somewhere warmer, somewhere with jobs. Scott is waiting on food stamps and possible disability payments for a wrist injury.

He is disappointed with the state of Michigan - he has no caseworker, no hospital stay, no counseling, no Medicaid - disappointed "to say the least. That's just putting it mildly." He also feels disappointed with Congress. "The - the system is broken, as far as I'm concerned," his voice breaking for a moment. "It's broken and it needs to be repaired drastically and urgently, but the people in Congress could care less as long as they've got theirs. I'm not even the worst off. On the forum, one guy sold his computer to buy some milk for his kid, then got in his van and shot himself. I'm better off than many."

When the Unemployed-Friends rescue happened, he posted: "All I have to say to you people on this forum is: YOU PEOPLE ARE A GODSEND. Not only for me but for others who need a helping hand and someone to talk to. I am crying tears of joy because someone who doesn't even know me is willing to help me in my time of need."

I ask him how he is feeling now. He replies, "Like a burden. I have no money. I have no job. I'm not going to lie to you. I still think about it."

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