Political Animal


May 04, 2013 5:22 PM The suicide rate continues to soar; or, how our dysfunctional economy is literally killing us

By Kathleen Geier

Holy crap! The New York Times is reporting that the suicide rate is way up, particularly for people ages 35 to 64.

From 1999 to 2010, the suicide rate among Americans ages 35 to 64 rose by nearly 30 percent, to 17.6 deaths per 100,000 people, up from 13.7.
The most pronounced increases were seen among men in their 50s, a group in which suicide rates jumped by nearly 50 percent, to about 30 per 100,000. For women, the largest increase was seen in those ages 60 to 64, among whom rates increased by nearly 60 percent, to 7.0 per 100,000.

Real suicide rates may be even higher than these reported rates, since many suicides are not reported as such and are falsely attributed to accident.

The Times report speculates that one factor behind the suicide spike may be “the widespread availability of opioid drugs like OxyContin and oxycodone, which can be particularly deadly in large doses.” That may be true; however, poisoning deaths, which include prescription overdoses, were up only 24%, while hanging deaths were up 81%. And guns, which are strongly associated with higher suicide rates, are still the most common method of committing suicide.

I’ve written about this subject before. Suicide is a complicated issue and there are always multiple causes. But as I said then, it’s hard to believe that the economy is not playing a significant role here:

Last year, a report by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that “[s]uicide rates in the U.S. tend to rise during recessions and fall amid economic booms.”
In Europe, a recent wave of “suicides by economic crisis” has been well-documented …

Suicide rates began to climb dramatically before the Great Recession. But even prior to the recession, large numbers of people were having difficulty finding employment. A look at official labor force participation statistics during this period confirms that labor force participation rates were going steadily down just as the suicide rate was going up. This is particularly true for the age group in which the increase was most dramatic: people in their prime working years.

To be honest, given economic conditions in this country, it would be shocking if suicide rates were not spiking.

Our pension system is a shambles and we’ve seen a wave of mortgage foreclosures. Many people in this economy have lost their jobs and everything they’ve worked hard for all their lives, and have no realistic prospects of finding a decent job ever again. They are understandably freaked out, stressed out, and depressed. Losing one’s job is one of the most traumatic things that can happen to a person, especially in this dismal economy. Moreover, when people lose their jobs, they also tend to lose their health insurance. And without access to decent mental health care, many depressions go untreated.

In the Times, one expert has this to say:

“The boomers had great expectations for what their life might look like, but I think perhaps it hasn’t panned out that way,” she said. “All these conditions the boomers are facing, future cohorts are going to be facing many of these conditions as well.”

How many people in this country will end their working lives having seen a significant decline in their living standards, relative to the standards their parents enjoyed? For the first time in America, declining economic mobility is a reality for many of us. The dashed dreams and expectations so many Americans are experiencing may explain much of the increased suicide rate. This economy is literally killing us.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee


  • Steve on May 04, 2013 7:06 PM:

    On the positive side, if enough Boomers off themselves, the Social Security "problem" solves itself.

    Perhaps "classic rock" stations need to start playing the theme from M*A*S*H in high rotation.

  • Anonymous on May 04, 2013 7:41 PM:

    Say you're 55 or so, and unemployed.

    You're upside down on the mortgage.

    Your 401(k) never bounced back from '01, or '09, or you pulled it to pay for medical, or the kids' education.

    Or maybe you had a defined-benefits pension except the raiders got to it, and/or the early-retirement penalty reduces your actual monthly check to something laughable.

    Your kids are armpit-deep in tuition-loan debt.

    And one and a half major parties are going to see to it you never live to collect SS, or Medicare.

    You've still got life insurance, lots of term, but it's not going to be renewed, due to health, or not being able to make the premiums.

    Do the math. What way forward leaves your family in the best shape financially?

    People aren't stupid, and they aren't selfish.

  • smartalek on May 04, 2013 7:56 PM:

    I wonder if Ms Geier might have meant to write "downward economic mobility," instead of "declining?"
    The latter is consistent with economic stability; a situation in which people don't have as much upside potential for bettering their financial situations as they might once have had, but at least they're not losing ground. But for more than 50% of us now, that is not our reality.
    As she notes earlier in the article, between "rightsizings," shutdowns, outsourcing, offshoring, mergers, buyouts, and collapses, many people have already lost the best jobs they will ever have had in their lives. Even before that's compounded, as it is for many, by the loss of their homes, and everything they'd invested therein, and 401ks or other retirement vehicles (such as pensions robbed by their former employers), that's not "declining mobility," which is reduced opportunity for improvement.
    That's declining wealth, income, standard of living -- ie, downward mobility.

  • smartalek on May 04, 2013 8:10 PM:

    And this, by the way, may be a good explanation, or at least a contributor, to what I noted in a comment yesterday:
    Depending on the actual numbers (all I saw were percentages, but with different baseline numbers for respondents of different parties, that alone is meaningless), it's entirely possible that up to a third of the people who responded to polls that "armed revolt might be necessary" might be people responding to what might seem intractable and insoluble economic dysfunction, rather than (or as well as) to [mis]perceptions of incipient "tyranny" by our gummint.
    For many people, outward rage is a more natural, and possibly even rational, response than the inward rage that is suicide.

  • tom rogers on May 04, 2013 8:12 PM:

    I'm 55 and retired, with a union pension and SS disability. And yet I am in deep depression and see no relief in sight. I can imagine what it must be like for a similar person to not even have that pension to fall back on.

    If it weren't for helping raise the grandkids and escaping to the virtual worlds of Skyrim and the Capital Wastelands, well I wouldn't be of any use to anyone, and would conduct myself accordingly.

  • CRA on May 04, 2013 10:05 PM:

    If it weren't for helping raise the grandkids and escaping to the virtual worlds of Skyrim and the Capital Wastelands, well I wouldn't be of any use to anyone, and would conduct myself accordingly.

    You have good taste in games ... Many of us have noted that the money spent on the best games buys many hours of enjoyment, compared with other goods.

    Anyway, I appreciate your comment. Don't look at the gaming as bad: as I said above, it's a rational usage of your entertainment budget. Better than cable! etc.

  • Roddy McCorley on May 04, 2013 10:07 PM:

    I'm 55 and not retired. But since the advent of the shiny new millenium, I've seen my income drop by 40%, faced bouts of unemployment of over a year, faced a three year period of working freelance - which is a fancy way of saying once in a while I got paid. What little there was in my 401K had to be pulled to cover basic survival. At one point I was days away from the start of foreclosure proceedings. And my car was repossessed.

    At the moment I'm working out of the country, because in places other than America people with knowledge and experience are still valued a little. I've finally worked my way back up to almost what I was earning in 1996.

    I don't know how long my experience will be valued in this particular venue. Maybe I'll get lucky - maybe it will even be 10 years.

    But there is one thing I do know: The time is coming when it simply will not make any sense for me to continue. When that time comes, I will opt not to continue.

    The United States of America seems quite determined to destroy itself. We should not be surprised when that filters down to its individual citizens.

  • FlipYrWhig on May 05, 2013 1:33 AM:

    Not to say that this isn't a problem or a sign, but it's goofy to characterize a change like this in terms of a percentage of a fraction. It went from 13.7 to 17.6 per 100,000. That's from .0137 percent to .0176 percent.

  • c u n d gulag on May 05, 2013 7:28 AM:


    I'm 55, and I've had no job for years.

    I tried, but failed, to get SSDI.
    I'm now looking for doctors who'll vouch for me - the first Orthopedic specialist I went to told me, that if I had worked construction, he would certainly certify me as disabled enough for SSDI. "But," he said, "you didn't work construction. And you can still talk - so you're not disabled."
    YOU gonna hire me, Doc?
    No, huh?
    Ok, thanks.

    NO ONE is hiring people who are over 50!

    Once I find a new Orthopedic specialist, I'm going to try for SSDI again next year - not that that's going to be any sort of a windfall, if I get it.
    But, maybe just enough for me to be relatively independent for a while, if I stick to a very, very, strict budget. VERY strict.

    If I don't get it, I don't know what the hell I'll do.

    Once my mother passes away, I'll keep all of my options open.
    Right now, I'm not leaning THAT way.
    But, at least as I see it, my other options are: burdoning my sister and her family, or some friend and their family; living under an overpass, begging for food; or committing a crime major enough to land me in jail for a long time - hopefully, until the end of my life.

    For me, burdoning people is not an option.

    I think '3-hot's-and-a-cot,' beats begging for change, and battling for a spot under an overpass. Besides, I'm too disabled to put up any sort of a battle.

    Maybe, besides just checking the stats for suicide, someone should start checking the statistics for 'major crimes committed by those over 50?
    Which, in good times, is probably lower than the spirits of those of us who are currently over 50 and unemployed.

    Maybe, if Congress wants to incent companies with lower taxes, they could pass an act that would give major tax breaks for companies that hire the long-term unemployed.
    And a, still larger, tax break for hiring those who are 50, and unemployed.

    But this Congress is completely worthless.
    It's too full of sociopathic morons, who are, not just clearly out-of-touch, but only loosely tethered to reality.

    So, yeah, THAT ain't gonna happen.

    Those statistics are real people, who love others, and are themselves, loved.
    They just don't see any other way out.
    And frankly, and sadly, I have a full understanding of how they feel.

    Every morning, I hope that my Mom wakes up, so I don't have to start weighing my options.

  • c u n d gulag on May 05, 2013 7:44 AM:

    Oh, and with CO2 levels having now risen to the highest level in the oceans in MILLIONS of years, I suspect that, while suicide may be an option for this older generation of Americans now, what may not be an option for the next generation(s) in this world, IS SURVIVAL!

    Why commit suicide, when we're all killing ourselves slowly?
    Or, is it, slowly?

  • Equal Opportunity Cynic on May 05, 2013 12:20 PM:


    I don't know your family, obviously, but assuming they're reasonable, loving folks, I'm sure they'd rather help you in your acute need than see you spend the rest of your life in prison (or worse, kill yourself).

    This deal about "not burdening others" is really an American form of idolatry. In many other cultures, the question doesn't even come up; family helps because they're family, and what else could they do? IIRC you have some non-Anglo American background. Do you not find this to be true?

    You nailed it about our Congress, and it's hard to see any way out until enough ignorant Republican voters die off. This is probably scant consolation, but I really value your posts here, and you'll be in my thoughts and prayers.