Over at Mint Press News, there’s a story up about the increase in suicides over the last decade or so. The statistics are pretty grim: in some demographics suicide has risen by as much as 30% from 1999 to 2010. The article goes into a further breakdown of who is committing suicide and posits that the economic downturn could be related: when people are feeling depressed, they just can’t handle the economic stress of being unemployed or underemployed.
As a theory, this makes a great deal of sense, and probably is contributing to the rise in suicides, but as with any trend, this is likely a great deal more complicated than a simple cause and effect between economics and mental health trends. The article does mention that public access to mental health services has gone down in recent years, but does not go into a great deal of depth about that.
First and foremost, we are severely lacking in adequate mental health care in the United States, and attitudes towards mental illness are suspicious at best. While in the past there has not been a great deal of support for mental healthcare access, or even much by way of understanding of mental illness, today it is highly stigmatized and viewed as a sign of someone who is dangerous or unstable. In the past, suicide was often not considered an option: religious beliefs told many individuals that they would not go to heaven if they committed suicide, or that it was selfish and proud to commit suicide. In essence, suicide was considered one of the worst sins because it was considered playing God with your own life. While the negative attitudes towards suicide are still prevalent, many of these religious beliefs have lost some of their hold. So while we still are lacking in mental healthcare, we no longer have the attitude that suicide is never the answer.
Another large difference between modern health and health in the past is that we are living longer: our physical health gets a great deal of attention throughout our lives, but at no time is our mental health given the same consideration. While in the past, if someone tended towards depression they may have had to stay strong for a shorter period of time, longer lives may make it harder to fight off suicidal feelings. When staying alive past infancy is a struggle, and when you’re likely to lose your life to any number of diseases or violent actions, the idea of taking your own life becomes less pressing.
In addition, quality of life when we age is not ideal: suicide among the elderly has also gone up, and mental health problems for those who are elderly and losing their ability to live their lives as they desire are common. Depression can’t be treated in the same ways among the elderly (a recent study suggested that while exercise is often helpful for depression, it is ineffective for those in long-term care situations), and assisted suicide is also on the rise. The boomers have been committing suicide at extremely high rates, and their attitudes towards suicide are far more lax than other demographics.
I have personally heard friends say before that they would rather commit suicide than live past 70. The attitude that life in and of itself is something we should be grateful for has started to subside and we as human beings have begun to demand more: fulfillment, health, and satisfaction. We absolutely cannot ignore the fact that many of these rises in suicide rates are happening in first world countries where our lives are lasting longer, but the quality is not necessarily improving.
In addition, there are a myriad of other potential factors in an increase in suicide rates. One that may not often come up is that particularly in America, nearly everyone operates on a sleep deficit. Lack of sleep can severely impact mental health and quality of life, however almost no one looks at it as related to mental health statistics. Access to firearms, dangerous chemicals, or other methods of suicide could be related (we know that men, who use firearms more often than women, are statistically far more likely to have successful suicide attempts). We also see that bullying has been linked to suicide in young people recently, particularly with the advent of online bullying, which allows bullies to infiltrate every aspect of their victims’ lives.
So while economics probably does play a large role in the uptick in suicide, I would hesitate to point to a cause/effect relationship between the two, because mental health is a hugely complex issue with a wide variety of factors playing a role. These are just a few potential elements that could be contributing, but I believe that we should explore as many of them as possible to help improve the lives of those who might be in danger of suicide.