Monday, November 09, 2009

Suicides in the downturn raise worries about recession’s real cost

JoNel AlecciaHealth writer
updated 2 hours, 24 minutes ago

Coroner John White is presiding over a sad tally in this northern Indiana county, tracking rising numbers of suicides he believes are linked to the lingering recession.

Rumors of an economic recovery may be whispered elsewhere, but here, where the downturn remains entrenched, 22 people have killed themselves this year, and two more cases were likely suicides, outpacing the county's annual average of 16 self-inflicted deaths.

In more than a quarter of the cases, White said, distress caused by job loss or financial failure was cited as the last straw.

“We have a real problem,” said White. “They left notes specifically stating that the reason they did this was because of the economy.”

Debra K. Gibbs, a 54-year-old homemaker in Goshen, in Elkhart County, didn’t leave a note. Instead, she simply sent her worried daughter out for soda pop on a summer morning — and then shot herself in the head.

Despondent over a pending home foreclosure and mounting bills, Gibbs took her life on June 23, the day after crews came to repossess her 2007 Chevy Malibu, the last purchase she’d made together with her late husband, Sam.

“She was doing everything she could to hold onto what was hers,” said Gibbs’ daughter, Rebecca Filley, 30, of Cassopolis, Mich. “This was a vivacious, very strong woman, and she was taken to her knees because of money.”

The rise in suicides is alarming not only in Elkhart, which has been in recession since December 2006, but also in other regions of the country that also entered the downturn early, making this county of less than 200,000 a potential harbinger of similar deadly increases.

Federal figures on suicides during the current recession won’t be available for at least two years because of a lag in the way the deaths are collected and reported.

And, historically, only a slump of the magnitude of the Great Depression has had any overall effect on the nation’s suicide rates, which hovered in 2006 at 11.1 deaths per 100,000 people, totaling about 33,300 people a year, according to the American Association of Suicidology.

But in some U.S. communities that went into recession as early as 2005 or 2006, the ongoing crisis has been accompanied by a worrisome rise in suicide deaths. These spikes in suicides are especially notable because in most of the places hardest-hit by the recession, populations either held steady or dropped, census figures show.

“Everyone needs to be more aware with the stresses of 17 percent to 18 percent unemployment,” noted White, the Elkhart coroner. “Everyone really needs to be aware of what’s going on.”

Suicide experts say the reasons for taking one’s own life are complicated, and can’t be attributed to a single factor.

While there hasn't been a link between suicide rates and recent national recessions, which are declared based on many factors, there is a link with circumstances that come along with a recession, such as unemployment and home foreclosure, said John L. McIntosh, a professor of psychology at Indiana University at South Bend who researches suicide trends. Individually, people who’ve lost jobs commit suicide at rates two times to four times as high as those who are employed, the suicide association notes.

Medical and law enforcement officials who’ve watched the rise of suicides in their own communities say they can’t help but see a link with the downturn. “We’ve had many situations where people lost their jobs and that was the reason for why they do what they do,” said Sheriff Mark A. Hackel of Macomb County, Mich.

In that county of about 830,000, 81 people on average committed suicide each year between 1979 and 2006, records from the federal Centers for Disease Control show. But the figure jumped to 104 in 2008 and to 178 in the first seven months of 2009, a rise that has left Hackel’s deputies scrambling to respond to near-daily calls about suicide attempts.

In a county where unemployment still tops 18 percent, nearly twice the national rate, Hackel said he expects the trend to continue.

“I try to be hopeful, but I have a feeling we’re going to be dealing with this for a long time,” Hackel said.

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