The suicide rate continues to soar; or, how our dysfunctional economy is literally killing us

Holy crap! The New York Times is reporting that the suicide rate is way up, particularly for people ages 35 to 64.

From 1999 to 2010, the suicide rate among Americans ages 35 to 64 rose by nearly 30 percent, to 17.6 deaths per 100,000 people, up from 13.7.

[Snip]

The most pronounced increases were seen among men in their 50s, a group in which suicide rates jumped by nearly 50 percent, to about 30 per 100,000. For women, the largest increase was seen in those ages 60 to 64, among whom rates increased by nearly 60 percent, to 7.0 per 100,000.

Real suicide rates may be even higher than these reported rates, since many suicides are not reported as such and are falsely attributed to accident.

The Times report speculates that one factor behind the suicide spike may be “the widespread availability of opioid drugs like OxyContin and oxycodone, which can be particularly deadly in large doses.” That may be true; however, poisoning deaths, which include prescription overdoses, were up only 24%, while hanging deaths were up 81%. And guns, which are strongly associated with higher suicide rates, are still the most common method of committing suicide.

I’ve written about this subject before. Suicide is a complicated issue and there are always multiple causes. But as I said then, it’s hard to believe that the economy is not playing a significant role here:

Last year, a report by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that “[s]uicide rates in the U.S. tend to rise during recessions and fall amid economic booms.”

In Europe, a recent wave of “suicides by economic crisis” has been well-documented . . .

Suicide rates began to climb dramatically before the Great Recession. But even prior to the recession, large numbers of people were having difficulty finding employment. A look at official labor force participation statistics during this period confirms that labor force participation rates were going steadily down just as the suicide rate was going up. This is particularly true for the age group in which the increase was most dramatic: people in their prime working years.

To be honest, given economic conditions in this country, it would be shocking if suicide rates were not spiking.

Our pension system is a shambles and we’ve seen a wave of mortgage foreclosures. Many people in this economy have lost their jobs and everything they’ve worked hard for all their lives, and have no realistic prospects of finding a decent job ever again. They are understandably freaked out, stressed out, and depressed. Losing one’s job is one of the most traumatic things that can happen to a person, especially in this dismal economy. Moreover, when people lose their jobs, they also tend to lose their health insurance. And without access to decent mental health care, many depressions go untreated.

In the Times, one expert has this to say:

“The boomers had great expectations for what their life might look like, but I think perhaps it hasn’t panned out that way,” she said. “All these conditions the boomers are facing, future cohorts are going to be facing many of these conditions as well.”

How many people in this country will end their working lives having seen a significant decline in their living standards, relative to the standards their parents enjoyed? For the first time in America, declining economic mobility is a reality for many of us. The dashed dreams and expectations so many Americans are experiencing may explain much of the increased suicide rate. This economy is literally killing us.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee