Link between more foreclosures and higher suicide rates

A new study suggests a rise in foreclosures is connected to higher suicide rates amidst the economic crisis:

The study, publishing in the June issue of the American Journal of Public Health and available online now, is the first to ever show a correlation between foreclosure and suicide rates.

The authors analyzed state-level foreclosure and suicide rates from 2005 to 2010. During that period, the U.S. suicide rate increased nearly 13 percent, and annual home foreclosures hit a record 2.9 million (in 2010).

“It seems that foreclosures affect suicide rates in two ways,” said co-author Jason Houle, assistant professor of sociology at Dartmouth College. “The loss of a home clearly impacts individuals and families, and can arouse feelings of loss, shame, or regret. At the same time, rising foreclosure rates affect entire communities because they’re associated with a number of community level resources and stresses, including an increase in crime, abandoned homes, and a sense of insecurity.”

The effects of foreclosures on suicides were strongest among adults 46 to 64 years old, who also experienced the highest increase in suicide rates during the recessionary period.

Given the (1) relative importance of owning a home as a means of providing for one’s family as well as signaling one’s status and (2) the relative financial burden of having a mortgage (usually far beyond credit card or student loan debt), this makes some sense. At the same time, this study tackles the issue from a broad perspective without being able to link individual neighborhoods or cases to certain outcomes.

Durkheim discussed “suicide viruses”?

I was reading a recent edition of Newsweek at the gym and ran across a story about a Russian model who committed suicide. Toward the end of the article, the writer tries to explain higher suicide rates in Russia and invokes Emile Durkheim:

Young women from the former Soviet bloc are particularly fragile. Six of the top seven countries worldwide for suicide rates among young females are former Soviet republics: Russia is sixth in the list, Kazakhstan second. The sociologist Emile Durkheim argued that suicide viruses occur at civilizational breaks, when the parents have no traditions, no value systems to pass on to their children. Thus there is no deep-lying ideology to support them when they are under emotional stress. Ruslana’s and Anastasia’s parents were brought up in the Soviet Union; their children lived in a completely different world.

I find this idea of  “suicide viruses” to be somewhat strange as it makes suicide sound like a contagion or a disease. Durkheim himself suggested in Suicide that suicides were the result of anomie, the idea that individuals in a society need to be integrated into the surrounding or they may feel disconnected and take drastic action. Imitation was not much of a social cause (see this summary here); rather, suicides are driven by a normlessness that one can experience if not properly integrated into society.

I think this paragraph referring to Durkheim could be better executed by talking about how young women in these former Soviet Republics have a difficult time finding their place in society. In this particular story, it sounds like the model was destabilized by this particular group/cult and didn’t know where to turn. The socialization process between parents and children might play a role in this but there could be other factors as well. The suggestion in the story is that parents have little ideology to pass on to their children and this is more of a society-wide concern than simply the responsibility of individual families.

Suicide rates among the Baby Boomers

Suicide rates have long been of interest to sociologists, beginning with Emile Durkheim’s Suicide. The general argument from sociologists: suicide rates are reflective of broader social forces.

Recent research by two sociologists shows suicide rates among the baby boomers rose around the turn of the millennium. Here are some of the findings:

  • There was a substantial increase in the suicide rate for men (50-59) and women (40-59) between 1999 and 2005.  For men aged 40 to 49, the increase began about a decade earlier, in the late 1980s.
  • Increases in middle-aged suicide rates were typically greater among those who were unmarried.
  • The rise in suicide was particularly dramatic for people without college degrees, with increases near 30 percent.
  • People with college degrees seem to have escaped the trend.

Traditionally, U.S. suicide rates rise in adolescence and again in old age. They stabilize  in maturity and middle age, a time when people are invested in their families and work. For men in particular, suicide rates rise again in old age, when children are grown, illness is more frequent and spouses and contemporaries start to die.

The sociologists speculate that economic pressures played a role in these rising rates.

Based on findings like these, can we expect that the economic troubles of the last few years also led to higher suicide rates?