Suicide cannot be reduced to an economic equation
Ireland’s suicide rate has been linked to the recession but people take their lives for a myriad of reasons, writes JOHN WATERS
SUICIDE IS a topic wherein a combination of emotive content and ideological and/or short-view interpretations of the available data causes the public discussion to short-circuit into syllogistic analyses. Earlier this week, the president of the Irish Association of Suicidology (IAS), Fine Gael TD Dan Neville, described the just-released suicide figures for 2011 as “frightening but not surprising” given the impact the economy was having on mental health.
In fact, the suicide levels for 2011 showed a 7 per cent increase on the 2010 figure, which was down 8 per cent on 2009. The jury remains out on the connection Dan Neville inferred.
Two days ago, the Independent TD for Waterford, John Halligan, speaking in Dáil Éireann, quoted the IAS as suggesting that for every percentage point rise in unemployment there is a 0.78 per cent rise in the suicide rate. Halligan proceeded to an argument about the alleged gap between “rich” and “poor”, intimating a link between suicide rates and disposable income.
I first wrote about suicide more than 20 years ago at the tail end of the last major economic downturn. Then, as now, connections were proposed between suicide and recession. Attending coroners’ courts and speaking to professionals who dealt with suicides, I came to perceive an odd and somewhat contradictory phenomenon: visible sociological patterns that masked a myriad of subjectivities. Each suicide had its unique context and circumstances; yet the sum of such actions seemed to add up to a consistent pattern year on year.
Anecdotal evidence notwithstanding, the general statistical patterns over recent decades do not bear out the idea of a direct link between suicide and recession.
For more than a decade, the suicide figure that feature in media headlines – ie the absolute number of recorded deaths – has hovered about the 500 mark. There were 519 suicides in 2001; 478 in 2002; 497 in 2003; and 493 in 2004. The number of suicides was 525 in 2011, up on 2010 but slightly lower than 2009. (This, of course, was a period in which the Irish population was expanding dramatically, which indicates an overall decline in the rate of suicide.)
From the early 1980s to the late 1990s, Ireland’s recorded suicide rate doubled, from about 6 per 100,000 to about 12 per 100,000. However, most of the sharpest acceleration took place during periods of economic expansion, especially between 1993 and 1999, when suicides increased by 50 per cent.
There may be a connection between unemployment and suicide, but if so it is more complex than the conventional interpretation proposes.
A 2009 study, “Suicide and Employment Status during Ireland’s Celtic Tiger Economy”, (Corcoran and Arensman), published in the European Journal of Public Health, pointed out that unemployment showed up as a causal factor in suicide more strongly when unemployment levels are low, compared with periods in which unemployment is high or decreasing. One interpretation of this relates to the stigma pertaining to being unemployed in a high-employment society.