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Research Review

Are Suicides Spiking in Response to Recession?

When the death of Freddie Mac chief financial officer David Kellerman looked to be a suicide, people wondered whether it was driven by economic stress. In a recession this severe, people ask, does the suicide rate go up? The sad truth is, nobody knows.

Thanks to the power of modern disease surveillance, we can watch flu pandemics unfold before our eyes, minute by minute. Yet there is no equivalent way to monitor suicides.

“People everywhere are wondering if suicides are spiking in response to economic woes, yet we have no reliable system for tracking suicide rates in real-time,” says Matt Wray, PhD, a sociologist at Temple University and a former Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health and Society Scholar at Harvard University.

“There are good reasons to believe rates are rising—perhaps even sharply—but there is no way to know for sure,” he says. According to Wray, official data on suicides are collected by counties and states and forwarded to the National Center for Health Statistics for aggregation and public release, but this is a labor-intensive and time-consuming process. The last year for which national suicide statistics are available is 2005. Under the present reporting system, it will be 2012 or later before we know what happened during the 2008-2009 recession.

However, the questions surrounding David Kellerman’s tragic death make a few things clear, asserts Wray. “With 30,000 Americans each year taking their own lives, we need a national system for better and more timely suicide reporting. The National Violent Death Reporting System, run by the Centers for Disease Control, is a step in the right direction, but this program has been slow to expand—only 17 states are currently involved—and data still take about three years to process. I think the new administration ought to find a way to use stimulus funding to improve on that.”

— Source: Temple University