Oregon Suicides Not Linkable to Economic Downturn

Last week the Oregonian published a front page story claiming a “spike” in suicide rates.

The story, Portland Suicides Spike, asserts county mental health bureaucrats ‘suspect’ the current economic crisis has caused an increase in area suicides.

A graphic attached to the story shows the number of suicides in Multnomah County may be trending up. The graphic shows 100 suicides for 2003, 94 for 2004, 95 for 2005, 101 for 2006, 104 for 2007, and 58 as of June 2008.

Because the vast majority of suicides stem from untreated mental illness and untreated addiction, an increase in suicides is another horrible measure of the County’s radically underfunded mental health and addiction services.

But it’s inaccurate to assert the Wall Street crash of 2008 is the cause of local suicides increasing.

We asked Lisa Millet, Injury Prevention and Epidemiology Section Manager for the Oregon Public Health Division, to share her expert opnion.

Lisa M. Millet Injury Prevention and Epidemiology Section Manager Office of Disease Prevention and Epidemiology Oregon Public Health Division

Lisa M. MilletInjury Prevention and Epidemiology Section ManagerOffice of Disease Prevention and Epidemiology Oregon Public Health Division

Economy / Suicide Link

A number of recent stories in the media have highlighted tragic suicide deaths in the context of the current financial crisis [including “Portland suicides spike,” Oregonian, Oct. 24]. Although it is true that such stressors can precede a suicide, the issue of causation is much more complicated.

In fact, more than 90 percent of people who die by suicide have an underlying psychiatric disorder at the time of their death, most often depression. It is important to note that when people have recovered from their depression, the stressful events look different to them, and because they are thinking more clearly they can find better solutions to their problems.

Since the most recent statistics on suicide rates are from 2005, it is nearly impossible to determine the effect, if any, that the recent economic downturn has had on the nation’s suicide rate. And while historically, there have been reports about suicide rates increasing during past economic recessions, direct cause and effect has not been studied or determined.

Therefore, it is important for the media to avoid sensationalizing recent news of suicides by linking them to the economy when the statistics are not available and facts are limited. Instead, the media could educate the public about suicide warning signs and symptoms of depression and provide information on how and where to seek help (for example, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK).

In addition to providing inaccurate information, highlighting stories about suicide deaths can run the risk of contributing to suicide contagion, also known as copycatting. Finally, the connection between public safety officials and mental health professionals is crucial if we are to save lives when acute crisis occurs. In Portland that connection has gotten attention because of some high profile deaths.

That’s the right direction for our ongoing work to reduce the pain, shame, and stigma that accompanies mental health problems.