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Downturn Despair: Suicides Spike in Age of Austerity

Report links increase in suicides with 2008 economic crash

- Andrea Germanos, staff writer

The global economic crisis in 2008 has been linked to a rise in suicides in Europe and the U.S., among other countries, according to a new study.

There were nearly 5,000 more suicides than expected in the year after the global economic crisis, "one of the clearest signs of austerity's human cost.” (Photo: Grant Jones/cc/flickr) In an analysis of the impact of the crisis published Tuesday in the British Medical Journal, researchers looked at the number of suicides that actually occurred in 54 countries in 2009 as compared to those that had been expected to occur.

They found that there were almost 5,000 more suicides than expected.  There was a 4.2% higher rate in Europe, and a 6.4% higher rate in the Americas, with men experiencing a higher rate than women. The higher rates were linked to a surge in unemployment levels. 

The researchers write:

Rises in national suicide rates in 2009 seemed to be associated with the magnitude of increases in unemployment, particularly for men and in countries with low unemployment levels before the crisis. Our finding is likely to be an underestimate of the true global impact of the economic crisis on suicide as some affected countries, such as Australia and Italy, were not included. The rise in the number of suicides is only a small part of the emotional distress caused by the economic downturn. Non-fatal suicide attempts could be 40 times more common than completed suicides, and for every suicide attempt about 10 people experience suicidal thoughts.

Part of the study's implications, the authors write, is for governments to take "urgent action," noting that the increased suicide risks are not inevitable; rather than choosing austerity, which exacerbates unemployment and leads to higher suicide levels, in the wake of crises, they should foster employment opportunities.

'The rise in suicide rates is one of the clearest signs of austerity's human cost.'Fiona Godlee, editor of the Journal, writes that while her publication does not involve itself in politics, "where there is evidence that a [government] policy is harming health, we must speak as we find.  The policy in this case is austerity..."

“Whatever the economic arguments in favor of austerity, the rise in suicide rates is one of the clearest signs of its human cost,” the Independent quotes Richard Garside, director of the Center for Crime and Justice Studies, as saying.

In an editorial linked to the study, Keith Hawton and Camilla Haw write:

It seems that where governments choose austerity measures to tackle national financial debt the impact is worse. In contrast, active programmes to keep as many people in work or other meaningful activity and to support community healthcare and benefits can reduce or even fully counter these effects.

Hawton and Haw reference The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills by David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu and its summary that says, “recessions can hurt, but austerity kills.” They say that with the analysis provided in the new study, that summary might be rephrased to: “recessions and their sequelae have wide ranging socioeconomic consequences—how governments respond may determine whether this is translated into despair and suicide.”

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