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Joblessness And Hopelessness: The Link Between Unemployment And Suicide

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BUDMEYERS
This Friday, Jan. 21, 2011 picture shows a list of job openings that Bud Meyers applied for at various casinos on his apartment desk in Las Vegas. More than two years after Meyers lost his job as a Las Vegas Strip bartender and nearly eight months after he exhausted his unemployment benefits, the 55-year-old is certain he will soon be homeless. He is among a growing number of people who no longer qualify for unemployment benefits because they have been out of work for so long. (AP) | AP

Kerri, a 57-year-old living near Seattle, says she lost her software sales job three years ago -- and that age discrimination has made her ongoing search for work feel hopeless at times.

"I went to an interview and the guy actually excused me before we even started. He said, 'Well, we're looking at your resume and we don't feel that you'd be a good fit,'" Kerri recalls. "Why would I be brought in after two phone interviews with managers?"

By the winter of 2009, she says, she'd taken all the rejection she could stand. She swallowed a bunch of pills.

"There was a reason: I had no hope," she recalls. "There was no point for the future. I had just lost another job opportunity that I thought I had done a really good job at and they just dismissed me. I was old, and they're not going to hire me. With that, I couldn't have my life back."

She says that when she came to in a hospital, doctors told her she'd called 911 before passing out because she wanted someone to come feed her two dogs. She doesn't remember making that call.

While she says she's more comfortable now talking about what happened then, she asked that her full name not be used in this story because she's only told one other person, a family member, that she tried to kill herself.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

How much did Kerri's joblessness contribute to her decision to try and take her own life? Researchers have long sought to understand the possible link between unemployment and suicide. As layoffs surged late in 2008, the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, a group based in D.C. and Massachusetts that helps organizations develop suicide prevention programs, reviewed two decades' worth of research on the question. It found that a "strong relationship exists between unemployment, the economy, and suicide."

But, the group cautioned, it's never just one factor that drives people to the edge.

"Economic circumstances themselves are insufficient to cause a suicide; in fact, we do not know of any single factor that is sufficient on its own to 'cause' a suicide," says an SPRC memo based on the research. "Stressors such as the loss of a job, a home, or retirement security can result in shame, humiliation or despair, and in that context, can precipitate suicide attempts in those who are already vulnerable or do not have sufficient resources to draw on for support."

A new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that the suicide rate from 1928 to 2007 has risen and fallen in tandem with the business cycle. It spiked at the onset of the Great Depression, rising to its all-time high in 1933. It fell during the expansionary World War II period from 1939 to 1945. It rose during the oil crisis of the early '70s and the double-dip recession of the early '80s, and fell to its lowest level ever during the booming '90s.

"Economic problems can impact how people feel about themselves and their futures as well as their relationships with family and friends. Economic downturns can also disrupt entire communities," the study's author, Feijun Luo, an economist in the CDC's Division of Violence Prevention, says in a statement. "We know suicide is not caused by any one factor -- it is often a combination of many that lead to suicide."

Has suicide spiked during the worst recession since the Great Depression started in 2007? The government's official numbers lag, so it's too early to answer that question. According to the most recent data -- a preliminary estimate the CDC released in March -- suicide ticked up slightly in 2009, becoming the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. Suicides accounted for 11.7 of every 100,000 deaths in 2009, up from 11.6 deaths the previous year and 11.3 in 2007.

A recent paper by Timothy J. Classen of Loyola University Chicago and Richard A. Dunn of Texas A&M found that mass layoffs and long spells of unemployment specifically were associated with increased suicide risk. That study relied on data from 1996 to 2005.

In this recession, the long-term unemployment rate (defined by the government as jobless spells lasting at least six months) has soared to unprecedented levels. More than 6 million people -- nearly half the total unemployed in March -- had been out of work that long. And more than a million people have been out of work for 99 weeks or longer, passing the maximum limit for unemployment insurance. The ranks of the long-term jobless keep growing even as the unemployment rate goes down.

"Given our findings for a slightly earlier time period, I would be concerned that the increasing rate of long-term unemployment in the United States is having important consequences on the mental health of many American workers, and I would be concerned that we are going to see increased rate of suicide because of it," Dunn says. "We won't be able to study this until the latest data comes out, but we won't have that data for another two or three years."

For some of those struggling with joblessness, it seems obvious that the ongoing jobs crisis will lead to more suicides.

Gerry DePietro, who says she lost her job as an accountant in 2008, became one of a cadre of long-term unemployed who share their troubles with others online. DePietro, who is in her mid 60s and lives in Norristown, Pa., says she got a job this week after 30 months of unemployment. She's no longer one of the "99ers" -- people who've exhausted all 99 weeks of their unemployment benefits without finding work -- but she says she'll continue to be an advocate for their cause.

"You wonder why I am so passionate about my fight for the 99ers?" wrote DePietro in a February email, one of dozens she's sent to reporters and Congressional staffers. "I just received word of YET ANOTHER 99ER WHO TOOK HIS OWN LIFE! A young father with a wife and 2 young children! THE SUICIDE RATE IS HIGH, BUT YOU NEVER HEAR ABOUT THAT."

Tales of the jobless committing suicide for lack of work abound online in forums and blogs. Change.org is a website that allows users to create their own petitions and contribute news stories. A 2010 blog item on the site, for instance, drew a bright line connecting job loss and one man's suicide.

"Wayne Zickefoose was facing a desperate situation. With an impending foreclosure and a mountain of credit card debt, he must have felt there was no way out," the story said. "On June 13th, he picked up a handgun and shot his wife and 3-year-old son before killing himself. The tragedy isn't just an isolated incident. As joblessness rates rise, people are getting desperate."

For their part, suicide prevention advocates don't dismiss the notion that joblessness adds to the emotional burden of anyone prone to suicidal thoughts, but they say the array of factors leading to such a decision is too complex to be tied to just one thing -- and that 90 percent of people who actually die by suicide have an underlying mental health issue. And advocates warn the media to tread carefully around the topic.

"Avoid reporting that death by suicide was preceded by a single event, such as a recent job loss, divorce or bad grades," say recommendations for media from a coalition of groups led by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the American Association of Suicidology, and the Annenberg Public Policy Center. "Reporting like this leaves the public with an overly simplistic and misleading understanding of suicide."

Contagion is the concern: The suicide prevention groups say studies have shown dramatic, simplistic headlines about suicide motivation can lead to copycat suicides. The anti-suicide groups updated their reporting recommendations on Thursday, including for the first time advice for citizen journalists, bloggers, and message board administrators -- a nod to the pivotal role that social media and the Web now play in discussions of the topic.

But at least among some of the jobless, media reports about suicide are considered too tame.

Bud Meyers, a Las Vegas casino bartender who's been out of work for more than two years, wrote on his blog in November that he suspected that media avoidance of suicide topics had a worse effect than contagion. "If the news media had reported the full stories of all these unemployed-related suicides, maybe many of those poor souls would still be clinging on to life today, and possibly living with some measure of hope," he wrote. "And maybe they wouldn't have had to write their own eulogies or their pathetic suicide notes either."

When Meyers (whose name is a pseudonym) later posted an apparent suicide note online at the beginning of the year ("now I must face the stark reality of the last three weeks of my life," he wrote), unemployed Twitter users alerted a CNN reporter, Ali Velshi. Velshi took to the CNN Newsroom and told Meyers on air to "hang in there."

Meyers' online acquaintances also notified Las Vegas police, who visited his home. Meyers said he told the officers that what he'd written wasn't a suicide note -- something he later repeated to a plethora of media outlets, including The Huffington Post and the Associated Press. Still, the coverage at the time made him the despairing, middle-aged face of long-term unemployment.

He continues to struggle. In an interview, he says that he tells himself: "Bud, you've had a good life. You've had a good 55 years. Why not end it now? Why spend the last 15 to 20 years of my life in total poverty when I've already had it so good up to a certain point? Why ruin a good life by ending it so badly?'"

Yet he's hanging on. He says he's accepted the generosity of a stranger who took him in and he is also applying for disability benefits from the Social Security Administration.

Whether or not they decide to take their own lives, people in their fifties who've been out of work for a long time (and the HuffPost has interviewed dozens of these people in the past few years) say they feel disconnected from society, as though they're watching the world through a window. The isolation deepens as they sit at their computers, flinging resume after resume at prospective employers who rarely respond -- even just to say no.

Some hang out in online forums where jobless folks gab over the latest news on the economy or unemployment benefits. Kerri used to do this, too. She says she once closely followed the news on Congress.org because the site had excellent detail on benefits she might receive. The site's administrators have described their comment boards as "almost like self-organizing self-help groups where people share information on [unemployment] benefits in their states."

Kerri says she also once sought out darker stories. "For some reason I was attracted to a lot of different stories that had to do with suicide," she says. "I would read about it and I would think, 'That sounds like a good idea. I could just go to sleep.'"

Today, things are different. While Kerri says she's still depressed, she has been coping more effectively after getting involved with a local church and finding some part-time sales work. "The fact that I've been able to get some temp jobs makes me feel like I am still worth something," she says.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.