By Kate Kelland, Reuters, in Globe and Mail, August 15, 2012
A painful British economic recession, rising unemployment and biting austerity measures may have driven more than 1,000 people in England to take their own lives, according to a scientific study published on Wednesday.
The study, a so-called time-trend analysis which compared the actual number of suicides with those expected if pre-recession trends had continued, reflects findings elsewhere in Europe where suicides are also on the rise.
“This is a grim reminder after the euphoria of the Olympics of the challenges we face and those that lie ahead,” said David Stuckler, a sociologist at Cambridge University who co-led the study, published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).
The analysis found that between 2008 and 2010 there were 846 more suicides among men in England than would have been expected if previous trends continued, and 155 more among women.
Between 2000 and 2010 each annual 10 per cent increase in the number of unemployed people was associated with a 1.4 per cent increase in the number of male suicides, the study found.
The analysis used data from the National Clinical and Health Outcomes Database and the Office of National Statistics.
Keith Hawton, a professor at the Centre for Suicide Research at Oxford University who was not involved in the study, said its findings were “of considerable interest and certainly raise concerns”, but that they must be interpreted carefully.
“It is also important that they are not over-dramatized in a way that might increase thoughts of suicide in those affected by the recession,” he said in an e-mailed comment.
Mr. Stuckler, who worked with researchers from Liverpool University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, stressed while this kind of statistical study could not establish a causal link, the power of the associations was strong. Its conclusions were strengthened by other indicators of rising mental health problems, stress and anxiety, he added.
He also pointed out the study showed a small reduction in the number of suicides in 2010 which coincided with a slight recovery in male employment.
A survey of 300 family doctors published by the Insight Research Group on Tuesday found that 76 per cent of those questioned about the effects of the economic crisis said they thought it was making people unhealthier, leading to more anxiety, abortions and alcohol abuse.
Data this month from the government’s Health and Social Care Information Centre showed the number of prescriptions dispensed in England for antidepressants rose 9.1 per cent in 2010.
A study published last July, also by Mr. Stuckler, found that across Europe, suicide rates rose sharply from 2007 to 2009 as the financial crisis drove unemployment up and squeezed incomes.
The countries worst hit by severe economic downturns, such as Greece and Ireland, saw the most dramatic increases in suicides.
In Britain, there’s little doubt times have been getting harder. The economy has shrunk for the last nine months and now produces 4.5 per cent less than before the economic crisis.
Many Britons have had the worst squeeze in living standards for 40 years and the crisis has hit young people hard, with youth unemployment soaring above 20 per cent.
Mr. Stuckler’s BMJ study found that the number of unemployed men rose on average across Britain by 25.6 per cent each year from 2008 to 2010, a rise associated with a yearly increase in male suicides of 3.6 per cent.
“Much of men’s identity and sense of purpose is tied up with having a job. It brings income, status, importance...” Mr. Stuckler said in a telephone interview.
“And there’s also a pattern in the UK where men are three times more likely to commit suicide than women, while women are much more likely to report being depressed and seek help.”
Mr. Hawton noted that increases in suicides at times of economic recession had been reported before – for example in the Great Depression of the 1930s and in the economic downturn in Southeast Asia during the 1990s.
The World Health Organization estimates that every year, almost a million people die from suicide – a rate of 16 per 100,000, or one every 40 seconds. It also estimates that for every suicide, there are up to 20 attempted ones.