Unemployed people are two to three times more likely to commit suicide, researchers estimate, and the risk rises the longer someone remains jobless. That is potentially a very large problem as the recession continues, with 6.6 million Americans out of work for six months or more. (Watch a local report about the rise in suicides.) Here's a brief look at the signs pointing to a suicide epidemic:
What kind of evidence do we have for this problem?
Counties with high unemployment are reporting a dramatic rise in suicides. Macomb County, Michigan, for example, has a 13.7 percent unemployment rate and reported almost 40 percent more suicides in 2009 than in an average year. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has reported a startling increase in the number of calls, from 13,423 calls in January 2007 to a high of 57,625 calls in August 2009. The toll-free helpline has since been awarded a $1 million federal grant to ramp up its program in high-unemployment regions.
Is there evidence of a nationwide trend?
We won't have nationwide suicide numbers for a year or two, says Annie Lowrey in The Washington Independent. But anecdotally and based on county-by-county numbers, "there are ominous signs of a real spike" since the downturn hit. There's a historical precedent, too: The suicide rate in the U.S. rose by 20 percent during the Great Depression.
Is it primarily an American problem?
No, it's a universal issue. In Ireland, for example, which has been mired in a recession for over two years, suicides rose by 25 percent last year. It's a particularly acute issue in Asia. During the 1997-8 recession, 10,400 more people killed themselves in Japan, Hong Kong, and South Korea than in an average year. In Japan, a study conducted in early 2008 found that one in five members of the population admitted contemplating suicide as their recession began to bite.
Is there a direct link between unemployment and suicide?
It would seem so. A British study published in 2009 found that when unemployment rose by 3 percent, there was a corresponding increase of 4.5 percent in the number of suicides. Research by Texas A&M and Loyola University in Chicago found that during mass layoffs in America, there's a bump in suicides right away, followed by a bigger spike six months later when unemployment insurance runs out. Losing your job can prompt a host of suicide risk factors, says Joe Weisenthal in Business Insider, including depression, alcohol abuse, loneliness, and divorce.
How can we correct this distressing trend?
Many jobless are finding solace online, on community support sites like Unemployed Friends. But those of us lucky enough to be employed should look out for our jobless loved ones, says Harold Pollack in The Huffington Post. If you think your friend or family member is showing signs of the "trauma, isolation, and hopelessness" that can push a person "past the breaking point," then seek professional advice at once. And as far as government is concerned, says The Economist, this "darkest side" of joblessness is "just one more reason why it's not a good idea to tolerate extended periods of elevated unemployment."