Background: As with previous economic downturns, there has been debate about an association between the 2008 economic crisis, rising unemployment, and suicide. Unemployment directly affects individuals' health and, unsurprisingly, studies have proposed an association between unemployment and suicide. However, a statistical model examining the relationship between unemployment and suicide by considering specific time trends among age-sex-country subgroups over wider world regions is still lacking. We aimed to enhance knowledge of the specific effect of unemployment on suicide by analysing global public data classified according to world regions.
Methods: We retrospectively analysed public data for suicide, population, and economy from the WHO mortality database and the International Monetary Fund's world economic outlook database from 2000 to 2011. We selected 63 countries based on sample size and completeness of the respective data and extracted the information about four age groups and sex. To check stability of findings, we conducted an overall random coefficient model including all study countries and four additional models, each covering a different world region.
Findings: Despite differences in the four world regions, the overall model, adjusted for the unemployment rate, showed that the annual relative risk of suicide decreased by 1·1% (95% CI 0·8-1·4) per year between 2000 and 2011. The best and most stable final model indicated that a higher suicide rate preceded a rise in unemployment (lagged by 6 months) and that the effect was non-linear with higher effects for lower baseline unemployment rates. In all world regions, the relative risk of suicide associated with unemployment was elevated by about 20-30% during the study period. Overall, 41,148 (95% CI 39,552-42,744) suicides were associated with unemployment in 2007 and 46,131 (44,292-47,970) in 2009, indicating 4983 excess suicides since the economic crisis in 2008.
Interpretation: Suicides associated with unemployment totalled a nine-fold higher number of deaths than excess suicides attributed to the most recent economic crisis. Prevention strategies focused on the unemployed and on employment and its conditions are necessary not only in difficult times but also in times of stable economy.
Funding: University of Zurich.
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