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The New Depression: Waves of Suicide in the Age of Austerity

Suicide starts to seem a strangely rational measure of life’s cheapness in a monetized society--people’s logical response to a loss of control over their destinies.

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Data from the U.S. may not be as dramatic as the emblematic image of the Wall Street broker defenestrating himself in the era of the Great Depression. But in the dawn of the Great Recession in 2009, the  Wall Street Journal reported on bleak suicide patterns:

The data from 19 states find an increase in suicides in the recessionary year of 2008 from 2007. Those states historically account for about half of annual suicides in the U.S. Calls to suicide hotlines are rising.

Another long-term  study focused on New York City revealed links between economic volatility and suicide.  According to researchers with Columbia University, “the monthly suicide rate in New York City from 1990 to 2006 was 29% higher at the economic low point in 1992 than at the peak of economic growth in 2000.”

Researcher Dr. Sandro Galea told  In These Times that although “it is always difficult to extrapolate from any one study” to project future trends, “this study is consistent with others that suggest, yes, that economically challenging times are associated with greater risk of suicides. This work strongly suggests that, in these times of economic downtur,n a wise approach is to invest, rather than to disinvest, in health resources that can mitigate some of the consequences of the economic downturn.”

But ironically, self-destructive tendencies  afflict governments as well.  Research on the crisis in Greece indicates that budget slashing, though often touted as fiscal therapy, actually deepens the malaise as healthcare access dries up: “there were about 40 per cent cuts in hospital budgets, understaffing, reported occasional shortages of medical supplies, and bribes given to medical staff to jump queues in overstretched hospitals.”

The New York City researchers reported that the trends were somewhat difficult to assess due to “Another complicating factor: some investors profit as the market tumbles.” The ripple effects of economic turmoil may be muddled by the  twisted benefits scored by those who happened to be on the right side of the trading floor. So the market once again finds its equilibrium point.

The statistics reveal the unnerving question underlying our collective struggle to make sense of systemic tragedy: Who really pulls the trigger?

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times. She is a regular contributor to the labor rights blog Working In These Times, Colorlines.com, and Pacifica’s WBAI. Her work has also appeared in Alternet, Ms. Magazine, Newsday, and her old zine, cain. Follow her on Twitter at @meeshellchen or reach her at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com.

 
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