The deadly cost of unemployment


A new study across 63 countries has found that around 45,000 – or one in five – of the total number of suicides each year are linked to unemployment.

The research from Zurich University, published in The Lancet Psychiatry, also reveals that of these, around 5,000 deaths are linked to the global downturn, suggesting that nine times as many suicides are connected to losing a job as they are to recession.

Although suicide rates increased after the 2008 economic crash, academics say the report reflects how people are almost as likely to end their lives during times of economic stability.

But Roger Webb and Navneet Kapur of Manchester University’s Centre for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention said the findings are ‘the tip of the iceberg’ of the mental health impact of recession.

“Many affected individuals who remain in work during these hard times encounter serious psychological stressors, due to falling income, ‘zero­-hour’ contracting, job insecurity, bankruptcy, debt, and home repossession.

“As well as death by suicide, we also require a better understanding of the impact of economic adversity, including non-fatal self-harm, stress and anxiety, low mood, hopelessness, alcohol problems, anger, familial conflict and relationship breakdown.”

Academics analysed World Health Organisation (WHO) and International Monetary Fund economic performance and suicide rate data from 2000 to 2011.

During this time, the risk of suicide increased by between 20 and 30 per cent.
Researchers estimate around 233,000 suicides took place each year.

In 2007, unemployment was linked to 41,148 suicides. Following the global economic crash, in 2009 that number had risen by 4,983 cases to 46,131 – an increase of 12 per cent.

The data, which covers different age and sex groups in 63 countries in four world regions, also shows the risk of suicide is the same across the world.

Contrary to previous research, the report discovered that men and women of all ages were equally vulnerable to the impact of unemployment.

The research also shows that suicides increase in the six months before unemployment rates rises – which authors say is due to the increase in workplace stress before job loss.

“People might work longer hours in worse conditions of employment or on reduced wages in the hope that they will be able to save their jobs,” Ian Cummins, Senior Lecturer in Social Work at Salford University in the UK, told Equal Times.

“It is a matter of great concern. It is not just about losing your job – it is also about the environment in which you are working and the stresses that you may be facing. There are hidden pressures on people, including low wages, long hours, zero-hours contracts, and workplace bullying.”

Report lead author Dr Carlos Nordt of Zurich University’s Psychiatric Hospital called on governments to tackle the impact of job losses during times of both economic prosperity and depression.

“The effect on suicide risk appears to be stronger in countries where being out of work is uncommon,” he added.

“It is possible that an unexpected increase in the unemployment rate may trigger greater fears and insecurity than in countries with higher pre-crisis unemployment levels.”

The latest suicide figures for the UK, released last week, show that male levels of suicide are at their highest rate since 2010 – while suicide levels for men aged 45 to 49 are at a 30-year high.

A total of 6,233 suicides were recorded in the UK in 2013, a rise of four per cent on the previous year. According to UK counselling charity the Samaritans, British men in lower socio-economic groups are ten times more likely to end their lives.

Joe Ferns, Executive Director of Policy, Research and Development at the Samaritans, says: “We need to see a greater focus at local and regional levels on the co-ordination and prioritisation of suicide prevention activity, especially in areas with high socio-economic deprivation.

“Sadly, we know that suicide is an inequality affecting people in the most deprived areas from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.”