Fatal fallout of financial failure

Economic woes in Asia a decade ago heralded rapid increases in suicide rates in hard-hit places

When an economy goes bad in a hurry, lives aren’t just ruined — tragically, they’re sometimes lost. A currency collapse that spread across much of Asia from July 1997 to January 1998 was closely related to an abrupt upsurge in suicide rates in economically devastated Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea, a new study finds.

Compared with 1997, suicide rates in those places rose in 1998 by around 40 percent for men and 20 percent for women, reports a group led by psychiatrist Shu-Sen Chang of the University of Bristol in England. That translates to about 10,400 more suicides in 1998 than in the preceding year, the researchers conclude in a paper published online February 4 in Social Science & Medicine.

Suicide rates continued to increase gradually through 2006 in Hong Kong and South Korea but leveled off after 1999 in Japan.

Singapore and Taiwan, which sustained modest losses from the 1997 financial crisis, showed no suicide spikes from 1998 through 2006.

No one can predict whether or how the current global economic crisis will affect suicide rates in the United States and other countries, Chang cautions. “But our findings are in keeping with previous evidence that the impact of economic crises on suicide is more marked in men, particularly working-age men, than in women,” he says.

The new findings also fit with earlier indications of a link between economic stress and increased suicide rates in countries — including many in Asia — without unemployment insurance or other elements of a social safety net, remarks epidemiologist George Kaplan of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Kaplan notes that following a regional economic recession in the early 1990s, the suicide rate rose in Russia — where the out-of-work were out of luck and often drank alcohol to excess. But suicides dipped in neighboring Finland, which maintained benefits for the unemployed.

Actual suicides are underreported in national statistics, comments psychiatrist Paula Clayton, medical director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in New York City. “I think this new evidence for large increases in suicide rates following the Asian economic crisis is the tip of the iceberg,” Clayton says.

Since 2000, suicide rates in South Korea have increased particularly sharply among elderly men and women, comments physician Young-Ho Khang of the University of Ulsan College of Medicine in Seoul. Rising poverty rates, especially among the elderly, following the 1997 economic crisis are a major reason for increasing numbers of South Korean suicides, Khang suggests.

Bristol’s Chang and his colleagues consulted the World Health Organization’s suicide statistics and population data from 1985 to 2006 for Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore. Comparable data for Taiwan came from its government. The researchers also examined annual changes in economic growth rates, unemployment rates, marriage rates, divorce rates and alcohol consumption.

Suicide data for other Asian nations hit hard by the 1997 economic downturn, including China and Thailand, were incomplete or unavailable.

In Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea, young and middle-aged men displayed particularly large increases in suicide rates from 1997 to 1998. Growing unemployment was closely related to suicide increases in Hong Kong and South Korea, but not in Japan. In 1998, Japan’s relatively permissive attitudes toward suicide as well as businessmen’s feelings of having been betrayed by their companies following forced restructuring may have spurred suicides more than unemployment, Chang speculates.

No marked changes in divorce rates, marriage rates or alcohol consumption occurred in Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea after the economic crisis. Data on national depression rates were unavailable. Clayton suspects that official records missed much alcohol and drug abuse, which along with depression lies at the root of many suicides.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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