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Trump Is Right: Suicides Do Increase During Economic Hardship


The pace of information during the COVID-19 crisis has been extraordinary. Last week President Trump said thousands could die by suicide as a result of the economic crisis created by the coronavirus.

The Associated Press (AP) immediately released a “fact check” on the president’s prediction, saying it was false. Over the weekend, The Federalist’s Tristan Justice reported more people died from suicides in east Tennessee than from the coronavirus. In the span of 48 hours, nine people took their lives, in a devastating tragedy for the families of the victims and the community.

We need and depend on the media to be rigorous about the quality of information they publish. People are continually refreshing news feeds and checking social media for any sign of hope that relief is coming.

This makes the AP’s “fact check” of the president all the more egregious, and frankly insensitive. The president was echoing a well-founded relationship between the economy and mental health.

Furthermore, there is such a preponderance of evidence supporting the president’s remark that it surprises me to see this false “fact check” made it past an editor. Let’s look at the AP’s claims and then we’ll see what the research actually says. From the AP article:

TRUMP: ‘People get tremendous anxiety and depression, and you have suicides over things like this when you have terrible economies. You have death. Probably and — I mean, definitely — would be in far greater numbers than the numbers that we’re talking about with regard to the virus.’ — news briefing Monday.

THE FACTS: There’s no evidence that suicides will rise dramatically if nationwide social-distancing guidelines that have closed many businesses and are expected to trigger a spike in unemployment stay in place.

The AP’s statement has no basis in reality. There is currently no body of research that demonstrates people are less likely to take their lives in time of economic hardship.

To lend credibility to their “fact,” the AP quotes Dr. Christine Moutier of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, “It is not a forgone conclusion that we will see increased suicide rates.” Again, suicides have been increasing at an alarming rate since 1999 for a variety of reasons, but there is a wealth of research that backs the veracity of the president’s remarks.

The authors also claim, “While there’s no way to predict this time around, historically ‘we actually tend in most instances to see suicide rates diminish’ during times of national crisis such as war or natural disasters, she [Dr. Moutier] said. Among the theories is that society pulls together during duress.”

People may indeed pull together during war or natural disasters, but this isn’t addressing why we see an increase in suicides during an economic crisis. There seems to be something different about how an economic crisis affects the population.

The authors then argue, “even higher suicide rate seen during the Great Depression of the 1930s fell sharply with the onset of World War II.” Setting aside for a moment that this contradicts their point that suicides don’t increase during an economic crisis, it seems self-evident as to why there was a drop: men make up the majority of suicides and most of them were fighting a war.

But if suicides increase during an economic depression, the opposite is also true. Historian Doris Goodwin’s article explains what the economy was doing during this time: “17 million new civilian jobs were created, industrial productivity increased by 96 percent, and corporate after tax profits doubled.” In other words, when the economy is booming, people are less likely to kill themselves.

Finally, the authors cite a 2017 study that found fewer suicides than expected during the Great Recession of 2007-2009. There was no link provided, but I believe they’re referencing the Harper and Bruckner study, which concluded there was “little evidence to suggest that the Great Recession interrupted existing trajectories of suicide rates.”

In actuality there was an increase. It just wasn’t by as much as their model predicted. Additionally, this is the only study I could find that yielded these results. The majority of the research supports President Trump’s assertion that suicides increase when the economy is hurting.

To illustrate this point, here is some of the research contradicting the AP’s fact-check claim. First is a quote from The American Psychological Association: “Socioeconomic changes might be part of the puzzle. Globally, suicide rates have often fallen when living conditions have improved. And the reverse is also true… these ‘deaths of despair’ are linked to a deterioration of economic and social well-being among the white working class (“Mortality and Morbidity in the 21st Century,” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Spring 2017).”

Here’s another study that supports Trump’s claim from BMJ, a subsidiary of the British Medical Association: “After the 2008 economic crisis, rates of suicide increased in the European and American countries studied, particularly in men and in countries with higher levels of job loss.”  Some highlights of the findings are as follows: “In 2009 there was a 37% increase in unemployment because of the economic crisis of 2008, suicides were approximately 5000 over the expected levels for that year. In America there was an increase in suicides of men aged 45-64 years of age.”

Here’s another from The American Journal of Preventive Medicine that finds: “Suicide circumstances varied considerably by age, with those related to job, financial, and legal problems most common among individuals aged 40–64 years. Between 2005 and 2010, the proportion of suicides where these circumstances were present increased among this age group, from 32.9% to 37.5%…”

Lastly, this quote from World Journal of Psychiatry directly affirming Trump’s remarks is pretty straightforward: “Economic recession periods appear to increase overall suicide rates, although further research is warranted in this area, particularly in low income countries.”

It’s curious to me that the AP would publish a fact-check that’s so clearly at variance with the evidence. It suggests certain members of the media are hyper-reflexive in taking the opposite viewpoint of Trump even if it means being wrong, a dangerously misleading and irresponsible choice.

How many times have we heard from the media about the importance of having correct information, and then people read something like this that’s so completely inaccurate? While there’s nothing novel about the media letting their manifest dislike of Trump drive their conclusions, it’s incredibly reckless of them to do so, especially when Americans are already stretched thin with worry and uncertainty.

The more personal aspect of what this research tells us is that people who are facing job loss or financial uncertainty are afraid and struggling. They may not always show signs of mental distress, so it’s important we keep in contact with these folks.

Check in with your neighbors who are suffering financially, and let them know they’re not alone. Offer to help if you can. Make sure they aren’t suffering in silence, and find ways to support them. Here’s the Suicide Prevention Hotline, and here’s what to do if someone you know is suicidal.