LOS ANGELES (July 6) -- In one of the darkest tallies of the nation's still-sputtering recession, experts say financial desperation has played a significant role in increased calls to suicide-prevention hot lines -- and likely has led to increased suicide rates.
Dr. John Draper, director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, said it's hard to tell whether the increased pace reflects more people needing help, or whether it's the effects of media attention on the problem and increased outreach by crisis counselors.
But Draper has no doubt the need is there. Federal mental health programs funneled an extra $1 million to the Lifeline last year to increase outreach in 20 programs targeting heavily stressed places, such as Michigan. And past studies, Draper said, have shown a correlation between unemployment rates and suicide rates.
"There is no reason to believe this would be different," he said. "There is very appropriate concern at the federal level. While we don't have the data yet, we're not waiting."
There are indicators the U.S. suicide rate has climbed. An informal tally of 19 states by the Wall Street Journal in November found an increase of 2.3 percent in the 2008 suicide rate over the 2007 rate. Other news outlets around the nation have recently reported a troubling flow of suicides and murder-suicides by people facing crippling financial troubles, including:
- An armed man facing foreclosure in Chattanooga, Tenn., who called police early July 1 threatening suicide. Authorities said that after officers arrived, the man talked with them from the porch of his house and then burst down the steps waving his gun while screaming, "Suicide by cop!" He died in a hail of bullets.
- A husband in Santa Ana, Calif., who called police later that same day to say he had shot his wife while she slept and then overdosed on Valium in a murder-suicide pact the morning they were to be evicted from their apartment. He survived and has been charged with murder.
- A husband and father in Anaheim, Calif., facing foreclosure and a mountain of credit card debt, last month shot and killed his wife, critically wounded their 3-year-old son, shot at but missed their 5-year-old son and then killed himself, police said.
In many cases, those committing suicide have underlying psychological problems or other issues that leave them more vulnerable to the stresses that come with long-term unemployment and financial crises, said Stephanie Coontz, a history and family studies professor at Evergreen State College in Washington and director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families.
For some, it's a function of self-perception, and a traditional sense of the man as a family's primary breadwinner. Financial crises are perceived as personal failure, and individual tragedy expands when families are involved.
"When men feel that they are financially responsible for the family, the family cannot or should not live without them, so they take them with them," said Coontz, co-author of a report earlier this year titled "The Long-Range Impact of the Recession on Families." "You'll see cases where people will lie about having job, or having money, then when the woman is about to find out he kills her and commits suicide rather than face the humiliation. It's an over-identification with the male protector/breadwinner role."
Several studies have found links between long periods of unemployment and increased risks of death by suicide, Coontz said. During the Great Depression, which began with the stock market crash in October 1929, suicides peaked in 1933, increasing from 14 per 100,000 to 17 per 100,000 at a time when unemployment reached 25 percent.
In Los Angeles, Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services saw a doubling of calls from 2007 to 2008 to its suicide hot line, which president and CEO Dr. Kita S. Curry says is the second-busiest in the national Lifeline system. Direct links to the recession can't be drawn, she said, since awareness of the services has also increased.
"But we've been tracking the calls, and there has been an increase in the number of callers who mention economic worries as part of what's troubling them," said Curry, a psychologist. Those who see no hope of positive change are at the most risk for suicide, she said.
"Right now, with the economy, people do feel hopeless and helpless; it isn't something that they can control," she said. And the worries often extend to children, she said, citing a study in which kids ages 8 to 12 and 13 to 18 reported they were feeling more stress than the previous year.
"Parents greatly underestimated how their children were feeling more stressed," Curry said. "The kids mentioned they were worried about money, which the parents had no idea about."
Even those not driven to suicide face increased risks to their own health. The studies from past recessions found links between protracted unemployment and mortality rates among those who lost jobs, likely a function of the stress that comes with such uncertainty, as well as from seeing entire ways of life lost to closed factories and other businesses.
"Some of these jobs are gone forever," Coontz said. "We've already been experiencing a transition away from a manufacturing economy and this hollowing-out of secure middle-wage jobs. That is something that is very foreign to the American, the notion that they're not going to do as well as their parents, and their kids are not going to do as well as them."
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which is open 24 hours, can be reached at 800-273-TALK (8255).