Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Economic Side of Suicide

Published in the Tampa Bay Times, 06/22/2018, page A007

The Economic Side of Suicide

The US Government’s Center for Disease Control recently released data on suicide rates. For the three year period ending in 2001, to the three year period ending in 2016, the suicide rate in the US increased 25%.

The increase has been treated as a mental health epidemic. Individual are encouraged to learn the dangers signals and seek help for themselves or their family and friends.

Yet, in over half (54%) of all the instances the individuals did not have a known mental health condition.

One way to try to explain such trends is to ask what else was changing at the same time. While two similar trends do not prove the two are related, identifying those relationships often offers clues to how better understand what is causing the problem and how it might best be solved.

Of all of things that have happened since the turn of the century up to the present, what are the most remarkable? 

The financial crisis of 2008, economic globalization, the loss of well paying jobs to technology and the wealth and income disparities between the 1% and the 99% are prime candidates.

If we take 2001 as a reference point, when suicide started to increase, what do we know about changes in wealth during the same period:

·      The best-off of the poorest 20% of the population were  60% poorer in 2016 than in 2001
·      The middle class person with the median level of wealth was 17% poorer in 2016 than in 2001
·      The worst-off of the richest 10% of the population were 19% richer in 2016 than in 2001

The figure helps to explain why the richest nation in the world has:

·      40 million people live in poverty, 13.3 million of them children
·      The largest income and wealth disparities of any developed country in the world

The housing crisis of 2007 resulted in millions of foreclosures. Those owners then competed with existing low income people for affordable housing. As a result, the number of renters increased by nearly 10 million by 2016, driving up rental rates in the face of reduced financial resources. Families living in poverty have no place to go and cannot afford where they live. That is hard on the human spirit. 

As financial hardships continue to grow for the majority of the population, and in particular for the poorest among us, suicide rates have gone up. Is this relationship between the concentration of wealth at the top and suicide rate simply a coincidence? If not, what are the implications?

To define suicide as a mental health epidemic implies that we should help the poor and over-stressed to better accept their fate as an individual responsibility. The alternative is to define the rapid rise in economic inequality as a situational cause and as a social responsibility.

The alternative solution is not difficult. The economic hardships that cause despair, loss of personal identity and hope, can be reduced through free entitlements available to all, rich and poor alike; such as: universal health care, and quality public education through college based on personal motivation and academic ability, not family wealth and ability to pay. Such universal entitlements account for why all of the other western democracies have lower levels of income and wealth inequalities. 

Often it is more effective to have a level playing field by fixing the situation causing the problem, rather than constantly trying to repair those who have been damaged by the situation.

As a Professor of Psychology, I have been convinced for over 40 years that many of the problems we consider to be “mental health” or individually based, cannot be separated from the context in which the person lives.


Prof. Edward Renner is a retired university professor. He blogs on current social issues at He may be reached at

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