Every now and then I go to a dark place when I see the oncoming tsunami of economic disaster building on the horizon. In Alberta, where I live, we’ve had horrible leadership for over 20 years who have invested all of our futures in a single resource: fossil fuels. This has trapped us all in a boom-bust economy and we are on the crest of a horrendous bust. Thousands of jobs have been wiped out. Provincial budgets have been wiped out. Corporate coffers have been wiped out. Furthermore, the ratio of household debt to disposable income has reached a record high of 163%. Our provincial and federal leaders are scrambling around like a two-year-old looking for someone to blame. Austerity is their asinine response to the crisis. It’s embarrassing. It would be funny as hell if the consequences were not so disastrous.
Everything in this province is tied to oil and gas revenues from healthcare to education. The university I work at has already warned us that massive cuts are on the way and nobody’s job is safe. This brings me to that dark place. My job is a yearly contract position reliant on grants. No grants, no job. The tsunami takes another victim.
When the wave of economic disaster crashes, for some people, suicide becomes the final option for a hopeless situation. In Canada, 3,728 people committed suicide in 2011 and it was the ninth leading cause of death. The last reliable year for census data in Canada was 2011. Anything after that is unreliable due to our federal Conservative government gutting Statistics Canada and eliminating the mandatory long-form census. How does a government make educated decisions without adequate information? It doesn’t, but that’s a story I’ve already touched on in Belief vs. Research-based Decisions. The problem I’m addressing here is a potential increase in suicides as a result of unemployment and financial ruin.
Katherine Hempstead, from Princeton, and Julie Phillips, from the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research in New Jersey, investigated the role unemployment and finances play in suicide among adults from 40 to 64 years of age. Specifically, the researchers wanted to discover if economic crises increased suicides in this age group between 2005 and 2010.
Hempstead and Philips chose this age group and time period because suicide rates have increased 40 percent in middle-aged adults since 1999. One explanation the researchers cite is the economic collapse that occurred between 2007 and 2009. They used 2014 data collected by the National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS) to determine if the increase in suicides were linked to the economic collapse.
According to Hempstead and Philips’ research, the CDC established the NVDRS in 2003 to collect information from multiple sources on incident-based violent deaths to help states with their violence prevention programs. Collecting data from multiple sources decreases some of the accuracy problems associated with individual data sources, which includes classification problems. Furthermore, NVDRS collects detailed information on the circumstances surrounding all violent fatalities such as mental health problems, relationship problems, and financial problems. Data collected by the NVDRS is high quality and considered to be a gold standard.
Hempstead and Philips only used states with the most complete NVDRS data between 2003 and 2010 and pooled their data across the following 16 states: Alaska, Colorado, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Ohio and Michigan were not added to the NVDRS database until 2010 and California collected information on only four counties. Therefore, the research team excluded them from their analysis.
The results of Hempstead and Philips’ research showed that 81 percent of suicides between 2005 and 2010 in adults between the ages of 40 and 64 years were due to mental health problems (66 percent female and 42 percent male). Interpersonal circumstance, such as problems with a partner, accounted for 41 percent of suicides (42 percent male and 37 percent female). Suicide due to external circumstances (such as problems associated with a job, finances, or criminal legal troubles) also occurred more frequently in men (39 percent) than women (23 percent) and accounted for 35 percent of suicides during this time period. The overall number of suicides due to external circumstances rose significantly from 33 percent in 2005 to 38 percent in 2010, with a sharp increase after 2007.
An extremely morbid, but equally important, aspect to Hempstead and Philips’ research was their investigation into method of suicide. Their findings showed that suffocation was most frequently used in suicides associated with jobs, finances, or legal problems. Furthermore, this form of suicide increased disproportionately (60 percent) in people between the ages of 40 to 64 during the period of 2005 to 2010. The researchers were unable to suggest a clear reason for the use and increase in this method of suicide.
According to Hempstead and Philips, suffocation poses serious problems for healthcare workers because it is “highly lethal, requires relatively little planning, and is readily available.” They recommend that:
Human resource departments, employee assistance programs, state and local employment agencies, credit counselors, and others who interact with those in financial distress should improve their ability to recognize people at risk and make referrals. Increasing access to crisis counseling and other mental health services on an emergency basis, as is often provided at times of natural disaster, should also be considered in the context of economic crises.
Take note Jim Prentice, premier of Alberta, that cutting or reducing vital health services can make an already difficult situation for the unemployed and financially stressed into a disastrous one. There is a better way.
That dark place for me is the question I occasionally ask myself while I watch the tsunami of economic ruin quickly approaching, “How bad do things have to get before I contemplate suicide?” Luckily, I haven’t yet imagined that level of bad. Sadly, for some, they’re passed the imagining stage and struggling to stay on top of the wave. If you find yourself at this place in life, there is help The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.
Rodney Steadman 18 March 2015
Hempstead K, & Phillips J (2015). Rising Suicide Among Adults Aged 40–64 Years. American Journal of Preventive Medicine DOI: 10.1016/j.amepre.2014.11.006