By Theresa Tamkins
THURSDAY, April 16, 2009 (Health.com) — Spring typically brings blossoming flowers, longer days, and—somewhat surprisingly—more suicides. And because this spring follows one of the most turbulent financial times in recent memory, some experts are concerned that with millions of newly jobless people (unemployment being another suicide risk factor), suicide rates might spike.
“Previous recessions have been associated with increases in suicide, especially in younger men,” says Keith Hawton, DSc, who published a report on suicide risk factors in this week’s issue of The Lancet, along with co-author Kees van Heeringen, PhD, of University Hospital in Gent, Belgium. “We think that the effects of the recession will be greater than any seasonal effect,” says Hawton, the director of the Center for Suicide Research at the University of Oxford in the U.K.
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death worldwide, and 1 million people die each year due to suicide—one every 40 seconds.
While suicide seems unpredictable, researchers know quite a bit about the complex factors that can cause someone to take his or her own life. They know that suicides rates are higher in unemployed populations (in some cases, because people who are mentally ill have a harder time holding down a job), and tend to spike after natural disasters and deaths of celebrities. After Princess Diana’s death in 1997, for example, suicides rose 17%.
Suicides are also more common in regions farther from the equator than areas that are closer (and presumably more sunny). For example, in Japan suicide rates are known to vary by latitude.
Next page: Vitamin D may play a role
Experts aren’t certain why suicides peak in springtime, although exposure to sunlight may play a role.
“We know that depression begins around this time probably for biological reasons,” says Hawton. “This might be a delayed effect of reduced sunlight in winter, but this is not certain.”
One factor could be vitamin D, which is known as the sunshine vitamin because exposure to sun is the main source of the vitamin. “There is a link between vitamin D and mood,” says Michael Berk, MD, PhD, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Melbourne in Australia. “Sunshine also sets the biological clock in the brain, and there is evidence that this becomes dysregulated in depression.”
However, others argue that spring is a relatively joyous season that’s bursting with new life—which can be painful for someone who feels at odds with his or her surroundings.
“There are more people out, and—at least on the surface—looking happy, well dressed, and well fed,” says Augustine J. Kposowa, PhD, a sociology professor at the University of California in Riverside. “The environment appears green in many places with trees and grass. Yet amid all this, as individuals compare their situations, they feel that they should be happier in line with the new season.”
Adding a relatively grim financial outlook to the picture—2.8 million people have lost their jobs in the United States in 2008—may have a different impact on men than women.
“Intriguingly, rates of suicide in women seem to decline in bad times and increase in good times,” says Dr. Berk. “This suggests that factors driving suicide differ significantly between men and women.”
Next page: Suicide rates higher in doctors and nurses
Other risk factors for suicide are mental illness (10% to 15% of people with bipolar disorder commit suicide), alcohol abuse, impulsive character traits (people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are at greater risk, for example), or having certain occupations. Suicide rates are higher in doctors and nurses than other occupations, for example, possibly because of greater access to life-threatening medication or because they witness traumatic events at work that eventually take an emotional toll, says Kposowa.
Suicide rates tend to be higher in the elderly; however, rates are rising in the middle-aged, who may be more susceptible to a financial crisis, says Kposowa. “People in [their] middle ages have had careers that provided them comfortable lives and a promise of safe retirement later on. All of a sudden, these hopes and expectations have been dashed.”
However, he advises them to “realize that it is not the first time in American history that the present dramatic events have taken place.” He notes that cultural changes in recent years, such as weaker societal bonds (higher divorce rates and lower marriage rates) and a greater emphasis on materialism may make people feel isolated and ashamed to get help in times of crisis.
“They should hold on to family, friends, and communities, as difficult as this might be, and realize that in the end it is the personal relationships and bonds that we establish with others that keep us going,” says Kposowa. “Just like money and homes, material things can pass in the blink of an eye, but lasting friendships stay. They should not be ashamed or afraid to ask for help—from their neighbors; from their churches, mosques, synagogues; from their children and other family members.”