Slowing economy, job losses, business closures, rising energy bills: it’s no surprise that the relentless negative reports of economic downturns are impacting people’s emotional health.
Our new research shows that these types of messages can seriously affect people’s mental well-being. And that when national economic performance indicators are poor, there is usually an associated increase in the suicide rate.
It is already well known that suicide rates rise in times of economic conflict and uncertainty. Previous search estimates that the 2007 economic crisis in Europe and North America resulted in more than 10,000 additional suicides. And last year’s results show that suicides increase both in years of significant stock index declines and the year after.
Austerity measures such as social and health spending cuts have also been identified as the cause of “suicide rate spikesamong certain demographic groups. There is also proof that a country’s suicide rate is associated with its maturity or stage of economic development (growth) – with male suicide rates increasing even in the most prosperous developed countries. This suggests that the path followed to increase income over time has negative effects on the mental health of countries.
Sentiment and suicide
In our latest study, we used US data that took into account the 2007 financial crash and the global financial crisis. We explored how these economic factors translate into higher suicide rates. Building on previous studies on this topic, we explicitly considered ‘consumer sentiment’ – that is, the emotional way in which people perceive their changing economic situation, e.g. expecting to lose their use. We used the Consumer Confidence Index measure people’s perception of their financial situation and the economy in general.
We found a strong correlation between how people perceive their economic situation and the average suicide rate. Thus, the more negatively people perceive their outlook, the higher the likelihood of suicide. The data showed how the average suicide rate increased significantly following the financial crisis for all gender and age groups – although this effect was found to be stronger for women than for men.
Our results suggest that consumer sentiment plays a significantly larger role in explaining variations in the suicide rate compared to traditional indicators such as income and employment figures. It would therefore make sense that constant negative announcements – such as high unemployment, rapidly rising prices and an increase in business bankruptcies – could have an impact on mental well-being. Ultimately, these incessant messages depress consumer sentiment and increase suicide rates.
However, our statistical work also shows that a 10% increase in the consumer confidence index reduces suicide rates by 1%. Thus, the results show that a more positive view of personal finances and the economy in general can actually reduce suicide rates.
Report the facts
We also tested the impact of increased mental health spending in the US and found no evidence to suggest it reduced suicide rates. This is likely because other categories of government spending, such as education and employment, are even more important to mental well-being than state-level mental health spending.
Obviously, the onus is on the news media to report honestly and candidly on the state of the economy. Yet consumer sentiment is rarely explicitly recognized as contributing to potentially serious mental health issues.
So, just as many media outlets aim for sensitive coverage of terrorism, gun crime and natural disasters to avoid unwanted panic, responsible media reporting on issues related to the economy should also be considered. This could offer balanced reporting that considers mental health and well-being.
It is rarely reported in economic news coverage, for example, that downturns are always followed by recoveries. Cyclical trends in economic performance are perfectly normal and predictable. And in this sense, they can be good times to exploit training and education opportunities before the next recovery.
This is particularly important given that the uncertainty surrounding the UK’s future has already worrying effects on people’s mental health – with informed ministers prepare for a rise in suicides in the event of a chaotic no-deal Brexit.