Falling Fast: The film “Bonnie and Clyde” nearly did not get made. Producers producers at Warner Brothers could not understand why they should unleash onto the public a movie whose romantic leads (Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway) spend their (brief) lives ultraviolently killing bank managers and police.

Warren Beatty saved the day. He explained that “Bonnie and Clyde” would be an “homage” to the great gangster movies done by the Warner Brothers studios in the 1930s. After explaining to the stunned executives what “homage” meant, the next worry was how to sell the movie. What would the advertising slogan be? One studio employee supposedly came up with the memorable line – “the family that slays together, stays together.”

Ultimately it was not used to sell the film.

But there are many forms of conflict and violence within families. And as a recent Danish study shows, the mortality effects were high – on young and middle aged people. The increase in deaths was surprisingly high and particularly afflictive of men, and was not related to the violence of guns or knives. Rather, it was the emotional stress brought on by family argument and quarrel.

The Study

It was paid for by the Danish government to find out what the effects of family discord are on health and economics. About 10,000 people aged 36 -52 were followed closely.

What Was Found?

In families where the feuding and quarreling was above average, the death rate went up by 50-100%, while controlling for the usual suspect variables - age, tobacco use, heart disease, etc. 

Who Was Affected Most?

Unemployed men. Their death rates went up two to three fold.

Why Were They More Afflicted?

In most studies of this type (and a lot of others) men are less hardy than women. The reasons are many, ranging from social mores and roles to greater tendencies to drink and smoke.  It may also be true that most of the reasons are probably presently unknown.

No physiological studies were done on this population. However, there are hints of what might be going on. A recent American study found that young kids who were bullied had high levels of C reactive protein, one of many inflammatory markers. Interestingly, the bullies had levels lower than normals.

Why Was Unemployment Important?

Because if there is a place where unemployment benefits are greatest and family security most guaranteed by the state, it might be Denmark. For years there have been calls that unemployment in Denmark not only carries little social stigma, but nationally high benefits directly undercut people’s incentive to work.

Yet in Denmark, unemployed men plus family rancor = a death rate two to three times higher than expected. This in a place where health care is then more or less free, education including new job training heavily supported, and housing and basic costs of living secure.

Implications Elsewhere

The “Great Recession” that started in 2007, moving on to the ongoing fiscal crisis of 2008, put a lot of Americans out of work. Many still are. Many will remain that way.

The employment participation rate has now gone down to levels not seen in several decades.  At least ten million Americans lost their jobs and did not find another.   Many will remain unemployed for the rest of their lives.

As for long term benefits, long term unemployment is kaput.  Housing resources are often elusive or non-existent.  Some states offer Medicaid, though often engaged through a series of bewildering rules.  Others hardly offer any health benefits to the unemployed, especially if they have never become parents; rules favor those with kids.

Economists usually point to the direct costs of unemployment.  They tend to overlook the wider ramifications of being out of work for years.

Which includes higher death rates, from a multitude of causes.  The unemployed experience more heart attacks and strokes, more depression and suicide.

And more quarrelsome families.  Here the effects march beyond the unemployed on to their spouses, children, friends and communities.  The results include worsened long term health – physical, mental and social – of the many people involved.

Social Health

Unemployment can rot people’s soul.  But family fighting can do the same.

The “social support” literatures goes back to the 1960’s and1970’s, especially the famous Berkman-Syme study of 1979.  The more social connections one has, the less heart attacks and strokes, depression, even perhaps certain tumors.

The opposite also appears to be true.  People who fight within their families die faster and earlier.  Communities riven by social conflict experience considerably worse health.

And unemployment magnifies those results.

 Bottom Line

The family that slays together does not stay together.  When people fight with the people they love – or live with – their health suffers. And so does the health of the community of which they are a part.

Similarly, economic dislocations have multiple health and social effects – and cost a lot of money.

For all these factors work together.  Social health markedly improves physical and mental health.

Another thing for politicians to consider when they look at economic policies – and who wins and who loses.

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