A new study, published in Social Indicators Research, investigates the association between economic policy uncertainty and suicide rates in the US. The results of the study, which analyzed over 60 years’ worth of data, found that economic policy uncertainty was connected to increased suicide rates in men for the youngest and oldest age brackets.
“When economic policy uncertainty has sizable negative side-effects, leading to greater inequalities, impoverishment and social isolation or pessimistic expectations about life satisfaction in the future, suicide rates might increase namely through an emotional process associated with increased insecurity or shame of economic failure,” write the authors, led by Nikolaos Antonakakis, faculty member in Economics and Finance at University of Portsmouth in the UK.
Periods of economic uncertainty, where more people experience unemployment or live in poverty, have been tied to higher rates of suicide. However, no study has yet to investigate the impact of government policy-related economic uncertainty on suicide rates in the US. According to the authors, economic policy uncertainty “can cause abrupt changes in the socioeconomic position of certain groups, who, becoming conscious that what has been expected can no longer be achieved, may be led to commit suicide.”
The researchers investigate the impact of economic policy uncertainty on male and female suicide rates in the US from 1950-2013. Data on suicide mortality was gathered through the World Health Organisation Mortality Database and the Center for Disease Control online database. Economic policy uncertainty was measured based on how often newspapers reported on policy-related economic uncertainty. The researchers also controlled confounding socioeconomic variables such as unemployment rates, divorce rates, and alcohol use.
The authors find “that economic policy uncertainty is significantly associated with increased male suicide rates only for the younger segments (15–34) and the older segments (65–84) of the US male population, while the female population across all ages is found to be resilient to changes in economic policy uncertainty.”
The authors consider that suicide rates being highest for young and old men may be connected to insecurity in entering the labor market and pension uncertainty. The researchers also suggest that economic policy uncertainty has created more psychological pressure for men than women over the 60 years of the study, because men have been more likely to provide the primary household income. The authors do not explore resiliency factors that may protect women and middle-aged men from turning to suicide in times of economic policy uncertainty, nor how rates of suicide attempts may be impacted by economic policy uncertainty.
As the authors acknowledge, economic uncertainty is inevitable and “while policy making can prevent increases in suicide rates by keeping exorbitant increases in uncertainty at check, suicide rates cannot be reduced by lower macroeconomic policy uncertainty.” However, the authors believe that the US government can do more to reduce policy-related economic uncertainty by being more transparent about policy making and conveying efforts to reduce uncertainty to the general public.
Antonakakis, N., & Gupta, R. (2016). Is economic policy uncertainty related to suicide rates? Evidence from the United States. Social Indicators Research. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1007/s11205-016-1384-4 (Abstract)