Emergency physicians and mental health workers in North Carolina have begun to worry that they may be in the midst of a disturbing new trend, according to a story in the Charlotte Observer, which explored a link between the recession and suicide rates.
After ten patients attempted suicide in a single night in March, a doctor at the Carolinas Medical Center said, "I can't believe it's not related to the economy."
The story raises questions for the rest of the country: Is this happening everywhere? And do more people kill themselves when the economy contracts?
Hard to know. The latest national data on suicides, released in April by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ends in 2006, when 33,300 people committed suicide nationwide. That's 11.2 suicides per 100,000 people, a rate increase of .2 percent over the previous year.
"Our data aren't really current enough to be able to say anything about this particular downturn," said Bob Anderson, chief of mortality statistics with the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics, in an interview with the Huffington Post.
Anderson said that the CDC is hampered in its reporting because it has to wait for each state to process death certificates, which can take up to a year. "We can only be as fast as our slowest state," Anderson said.
With a modernized electronic reporting system, statistics on suicide could be compiled in as little as six months, Anderson said. But updating the system would cost about $60 million. "We could have it all done in five years if we had the funding," Anderson said.
Timely reporting is important, because the data could have an impact on suicide prevention.
"We should be collecting this data in a more timely fashion," said Dr. Paula Clayton, medical director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Clayton told the Huffington Post that improved data reporting could identify trends and even help suicide prevention efforts.
Clayton stressed that 90 percent of the people who commit suicide suffer from a psychiatric disorder. However, she added, job loss can exacerbate persistent feelings of anxiety and hopelessness, which are warning signs of suicide.
There is a precedent for connecting economic trends to suicide trends, Clayton said. "If you go back to the Great Depression and you look at suicides from 1927 to 1932 there does seem to be a rise."
Even without statistics, there are clues to what might be happening. Calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the only national 24/7 suicide prevention hotline, have increased steadily every month since April 2007, when 38,114 people called the hotline. In April 2009 the hotline received 51,465 calls.
"It's clear that [the economic downturn] is raising the temperature level of America in terms of emotional distress. To some degree we're experiencing that on the line," said Dr. John Draper, director of the lifeline. Draper said that an informal survey of 10 call centers revealed that one in four callers reports financial distress as one of his or her problems.
"I wouldn't say it's overwhelming," Draper said, "It's a concern that has cropped up and has become salient on our line."
Draper said that the downturn's effects on suicide rates could lag for reasons that go beyond the CDC's delay in reporting.
"A person could lose their job now but how it affects a relationship with a family, a spouse, it could take a while for that to fall apart and make a bad situation worse," he said.
The Charlotte Observer's story provides some startling statistics about suicide attempts in North Carolina. Charlotte police reported a 55 percent increase in suicide attempts over the previous year, a county suicide hotline fielded 3,000 more calls in March 2009 than March 2008, and a local hospital saw a nine percent increase in patients who'd attempted or considered suicide. Clayton said that for every suicide, there are probably 100 attempts.
The phone number for the hotline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
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