Researchers compared suicide data from the World Health Organization before and after the onset of the recession in 2007.
"A crucial question for policy and psychiatric practice is whether these suicide rises are inevitable," Aaron Reeves of Oxford University’s sociology department and his co-authors said in Wednesday’s issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry.
Given that the rise in suicides exceeded what would be expected and the large variations in suicide rates across countries, the researchers suspect some of the suicides were "potentially avoidable."
In Canada, the suicides rose by 4.5 per cent or about 240 suicides more than expected between 2007 and 2010. In the U.S.A, the rate increased by 4.8 per cent over the same period.
Before 2007 in Europe, suicide rates had been falling, but the trend reversed, rising by 6.5 per cent by 2009 and staying elevated through 2011.
Two countries, Sweden and Finland, bucked the trend in the early 1990s.
Job loss, home repossession and debt are the main risk factors leading to suicide during economic downturns, previous studies suggest.
Reeves said three factors may help buffer economic shocks that could lead to suicide:- Effective treatment for clinical depression.
- Return to work programs.
- Greater gender equality in the workplace — rates rose for both and women, but the increases were about four times greater among men. In highly masculine environments, where male identity is bound up with work, job loss could pose more of a threat to status.
"Suicides are just the tip of the iceberg. These data reveal a looming mental health crisis in Europe and North America. In these hard economic times, this research suggests it is critical to look for ways of protecting those who are likely to be hardest hit," study co-author Prof. David Stuckler of Oxford said in a release.
As mental health services retrench, the researchers urged psychiatrists to speak up about how macro-economic policies affect the health of their patients and advocate for prevention.
"Recessions will continue to hurt, but need not cause self-harm," they concluded.
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