Media Spotlight

A psychological twist on the news.

Is the Recession Leading to Increased Suicides?

New stories of suicides linked to economic hardship point to a new trend.

For the bailiffs attempting to foreclose on Amaia Egana’s condominium apartment in the town of Barracalo in northern Spain, it must have seemed routine enough.    Egana, a 52-year old former Socialist councillor, was just one of  the more than 400,000 people who fell behind in mortgage ayments and faced foreclosure since the start of Spain’s financial crisis.  As the bailiffs arrived at her fourth-floor flat on November 9 to evict her and change the locks, Amaia Egana jumped off the balcony and fell to her death.  

Along with being the second suicide linked to an eviction in the past month, Amaia Egana’s case has sparked anger across all of Spain.   “This cannot be allowed to go on” said Judge Carlos Mediavilla after visiting the spot where Egana’s body fell, “The time for talk is over and steps must be taken for something to happen.”   That same spot has already become a pilgrimage site with flowers, cards, and candles being laid in her honour.    At rallies and public events, outraged fans have held up banners stating “They’re not suicides, they’re murders. The banks and politicians are accomplices.  Stop the evictions!”   Stickers saying “murderers” have been affixed at ATMs across Spain.

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As Spain’s economic crisis drags on with further evictions expected, officials fear that more suicides will happen as homeowners lose hope.   Although Spain’s economy minister, Luis de Guindos, told the European Parliament in Brussels that “no family in good faith should end up homeless as a result of the crisis”,   the Spanish government has failed to stem the evictions.    Talks are proceeding with Spain’s opposition party over a moratorium on home evictions and an official announcement is expected in a few days. 

For some, that moratorium does not go far enough.  One grassroots community group, the Platform of those Affected by Mortgages (PAH), is demanding an immediate halt to all foreclosures for first-time homeowners.  Given the government's commitment to austerity policies designed to restore Spain’s financial health, the prospect of further mortgage-related suicides has added to the spiralling tension already inflamed by the country’s 25.8% unemployment rate.  And with little hope for relief in the foreseeable future.

The rise in suicides linked to the international recession is hardly  limited to Spain however.   Along with news stories about suicide clusters in India and other developing nations related to economic hardship, health statistics are also pointing to rising suicides across Greece and Italy.  And the death toll appears to be spreading.  In a recent study published in the British Medical Journal, more than 1,000 suicides in the United Kingdom may be directly linked to the recession.   

Conducted by researchers from the University of Liverpool, Cambridge University, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the study examines suicides from 2008 to 2010  and found a sharp increase in suicides, particularly among men, than might be reasonably expected based on pre-recession trends.   The findings suggest that two-fifths of the increased number of suicides during the 2008-2010 can be directly linked to unemployment caused by the recession.  Regions of the U.K. with the highest levels of unemployment also had the highest number of suicides.  Although a direct causal link between job loss and suicide cannot be demonstrated by the researchers, the rise in suicides and the timing of the recession seems very strong.

Not every suspicious death is reported as a suicide however.   Coroners may be reluctant to declare a death as a suicide without strong evidence and some families may deliberately conceal the actual nature of the death because of the stigma involved.   For that reason, the researchers also included deaths relating to “injuries of unspecified causes” in their analysis.   Since this category involved cases where coroners gave a narrative verdict (where circumstances of death are simply declared without laying specific blame), the researchers included these deaths in their study.

Social analysts have criticized attempts to link rising suicide rates in recession-ravaged countries but the rise in  U.K suicides beginning in 2008 seems clear enough from available statistics.   This follows a 20-year low and, although the number of suicides began falling again in 2010,  the total number of suicides is still higher than in 2007.    

While spikes in suicides have been reported in previous economic downturns, the rises have usually been modest at best and problems with methodology and sample size have made it difficult to make any general conclusions about economic recession and suicide.  While this latest study has already been criticized by policy analysts, it seems the strongest evidence to date that economic recessions can be fatal.

Graphic cases such as Amaia Egana certainly demonstrate that economic hardship can have deadly consequences and the increased suicide rate across the United Kingdom and other countries is unlikely to improve as the European recession drags on.   What this will mean in terms of increased risk of suicide in people facing job loss, mortgage foreclosure, or bankruptcy is something that mental health professionals will have to watch for closely in the  years to come.

Romeo Vitelli, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Toronto, Canada.

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