LOS ANGELES – Everyone is familiar with stories of businessmen jumping to their deaths from window ledges during the Great Depression. New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that those stories, sometimes viewed as apocryphal, have a strong basis in fact: The rate of suicides rises during times of economic hardship and declines in periods of prosperity.
The association, however, holds strongly only for adults of working age, those between 25 and 54 years old, the authors reported Wednesday in the online version of the American Journal of Public Health.
And overall, suicides are only a small proportion of deaths, even at times when rates peak.
Earlier studies examining links between economic conditions and suicide have covered only relatively short periods and small groups, and have produced conflicting results. The new CDC study is by far the longest, covering a period of 80 years, and the largest, covering eight distinct age groups.
Overall, the study – which did not distinguish between men and women – found that the suicide rate was 18 per 100,000 adults in 1928, the earliest year for which data are available, and climbed to 22.1 per 100,000 in 1932, the last full year of the Great Depression. That 22.8 percent jump over a four-year period is the largest in history.
Since then, the suicide rate has been dropping, with much smaller increases at the end of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal (1937-’38), the oil crisis (1973-’75) and the double-dip recession (1980-’82). By 2007, the rate had dropped to 11.2 per 100,000 people and suicide was the 11th leading cause of death in the United States, accounting for 34,598 deaths.
The authors’ interest in the subject was initially triggered by concerns about what effect the current recession might have on the suicide rate.
The greatest decline in suicide rates over the eight decades of the study was observed in older Americans. Groups over the age of 55 had the highest suicide rates during the Great Depression (53 per 100,000 for Americans age 65 to 74), but rates have been falling steadily since then, have shown little deviation due to economic stress, and are now at the same level as other groups. That decline is probably due to much better medical care, which has reduced feelings of hopelessness among the elderly.