Americans now stand a greater chance of dying from the effects of austerity than being killed in a car crash. At least that’s what a new report suggests, if you read between the lines. The study, authored by a West Virginia University professor and published in the American Journal of Public Health last week, says that suicide now kills more Americans than car crashes. While the study doesn’t draw a direct connection between the recession and the spike in suicides over the last ten years.
Death By Austerity
More Americans now commit suicide than die in car crashes, making suicide the leading cause of injury deaths, according to a new study.
In addition, over the last 10 years, while the number of deaths from car crashes has declined, deaths from poisoning and falls increased significantly, the researchers report.
“Suicides are terribly undercounted; I think the problem is much worse than official data would lead us to believe,” said study author Ian Rockett, a professor of epidemiology at West Virginia University.
…For the study, Rockett’s team used data from the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics to determine the cause of injury deaths from 2000 to 2009.
The leading causes of unintentional deaths were car accidents, poisoning and falls, and for intentional deaths they were suicide and homicide.
Deaths from intentional and unintentional injury were 10 percent higher in 2009 than in 2000, the researchers noted.
And although deaths from car crashes declined 25 percent, deaths from poisoning rose 128 percent, deaths from falls increased 71 percent and deaths from suicides rose 15 percent, according to the study.
Can it be a coincidence that the rise in U.S. suicides occurred simultaneously with America’s biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression -- when millions of Americans found themsleves suddenly facing foreclosure, long-term unemployment, homelessness, and hunger? Possibly, but a significant increase in suicides doesn’t “just happen,” anymore than do economic meldtowns. As with any other socio-cultural trends, there are likely to be one or more factors driving it.
You don’t have to be a college professor to connect the dots. Back in April, I began writing a series of posts about the human costs of austerity in Europe, after the suicide of 77-year-old Green pensioner Dimitris Christoulas made headlines around the world. Christoulas set his suicide in the context of the devastating conesquences of austerity for Greek citizens when he chose to take his in a public square located near Parliament, and left a suicide note directly blaming the government’s austerity measures for the desperation and despair that pushed him to take his own life.
Christloulas’ public suicide, and his posthumous indictment of the Greek government’s austerity measures sparked protests from middle- and working-class Greeks who bear the brunt of Greece’s austerity-shrunken economy, and its 21% unemployment rate (51% for Greeks between the ages of 15 and 140). It also reflected an increase in suicides not just in Greece, but across Europe -- in every country caught in the vice grip of austerity.
Austerity has brought another change to Greece. Prior to 2007, suicides among Greeks under 65 fell sharply. In face, Greece had the lowest rate of suicides. Not surprising since suicide is so deeply stigmatized in Greece that the Greek Orthodox Church rejects the bodies of suicides for burial.
The economic downturn reversed that trend, as suicides increased among people under 65 increased between 2007 and 2009. The increase coincided with a 35% increase in suicides across the EU, with the sharpest increases in Greece, Ireland and Latvia -- three countries in which people live under severe austerity policies. Of the three, Greece leads the pack with the fastest rising suicide rate in the EU -- a 20% increase from 2007 to 2009.
Austerity has added its impact to the that of the economic crisis, to overcome the cultural stigma against suicide. Greece’s suicide rate has increased 40% since 2009. Perhaps what made Dimitris Christoulas different from so many others was that he chose to meet his end, not in some quiet room, but practically on the doorstep of Greece’s government.
As I wrote back in April, America is not Greece. While Americans’ have yet to experience the soul-crushing brand of austerity that has become the “new normal” for Greek citizens.
Since imposition of austerity upon Greece, there has been no shortage of news stories the impact on ordinary Greeks.
- In Athens, police spent five hours talking Lambrousi Harikleia down from a ledge. Harikleia threatened to jump from the the Labor Housing organization building, after another harsh round of cost cutting threatened to lay off workers at the agency where she and her husband worked.
- Last month, 61-year-old father of two Dimitrios Manikas shot and wounded his former boss and another worker, and took a third worker hostage at a small factory in Greece. Manikas, who had been laid off from his job about seven months earlier, was said not to have eaten for four days, and demanded back pay the company said was not owed to him.
- Just before Christmas, a teacher in Athens found a note attached to one of her pupils. It read, “I will not be coming to pick up Anna today because I cannot afford to look after her. Please take good care of her. Sorry. Her mother.” This is not an isolated incident, but is becoming more common because austerity has left many Greek parents too poor to care for their children.
- In the City of Perama, things have gotten so bad that some are calling it a humanitarian crisis. Almost 60% of the population is unemployed, nearly triple the national average. Thousands are unable to buy food, parents often send children to school hungry, and some families have been without electricity for five to eight months.
- Greek doctors report seeing more sick children, as parents are unable to pay for health care. Drug shortages have made common drugs like aspirin increasingly harder to find.
- Thousands of Greek workers have left the country in the past year. Applications for work permits to countries like Australia and Canada have doubled. For many, returning to Greece is not on the horizon. One worker put it bluntly: “There is no work, there are no services. What is there to stay for? ...Even if we do find jobs, there is no way to earn a sustainable living any more”
- Support for Greece’s mentally ill has disintegrated after two years of austerity. Staff shortages and facility closures have left many mentally ill stranded on the streets. Many remain there because their families can’t afford to help them.
The Guardian’s Jon Henley travelled through Greece and recorded his experiences in a searing series of reports he titled “Greece on the Breadline.” Reporting a mixture of fury and solidarity among Greeks, hears from them how austerity has changed their lives. In Athens, a woman who uses her professional experience to coach the unemployed asked, “[W]hat kind of society have we become, that we are kicking homeless pregnant women on to the streets?” He finds the school children of Athens are too hungry to underfed to do P.E. In Thessaloniki, a student postponed lessons to get in line for potatoes. Young people in Athens -- raised with an emphasis on education and a “career mindset” -- spoke of living with their parents again, taking odd jobs just to survive, and declared “We’ve watched our futures go up in smoke.” Across the country, “savage cuts” in Greece’s health services budget have allowed HIV/AIDS and malaria to make a comeback. Newborn testing for up to 40 diseases like cystic fybrosis and sickle cell are “effectively grinding to a halt, ensuring that children will die from diseases that are easily detected and treated.
Is it any wonder that desperation times have led some Greek citizens to commit desperate acts?
Given the impact of recession on the lives of millions of Americans, it’s a wonder we haven’t seen more people taking the kind of desperate measures on the rise in Europe.
We have been surrounded by the results so long that -- except in cases like the Tuscon shooting -- we can easily miss them, because they are becoming our “new normal,” of “anxiety, distrust and an array of mental and physical ailments.”
- A majority of Americans, 57%, cited economic conditions as a cause of stress in their lives.
- The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported that 1 in 5 Americans had some form of mental illness in 2009, a slight increase over the previous year.
- Meanwhile, states facing budget crises are cutting back on mental health services. (Such was the case in Pima County, AZ, where the Giffords shooting occurred, and which dropped nearly 50% of its mental health services.)
- Drug and alcohol consumption are proving recession-proof. Americans’ drinking habits have not only remained steady during the recession, but more people are drinking, and more doing their drinking at home, alone. Meanwhile, illegal drug use has increased, particularly marijuana, ecstasy, and prescription drugs.
- In states like Oregon, suicide and drug and alcohol help lines have experience marked increases in calls, along with other mental health services, at the same time that state have fewer resources to support such services.
- We may not know for some time exactly how much the recession has fueled suicides or suicidality, but early data suggests that suicides have risen during the recession. In many cases job loss or financial devastation were cited as “last straw” events.
- Foreclosure-related suicides became regular news items, as waves of foreclosures spread across the country.
- Likewise, reports of workplace violence became more common during the recession, as unemployment rates remain at record highs.
- Family-related violence seems to have gone up, with increases in reports of domestic violence and child abuse.
Combine all of the above with the easily obtained firearms, plus the 250 million already in private hands, and even with out the addition of inflammatory political rhetoric, it’s almost a miracle that we haven’t seen more violence events like the Tucson shooting -- a miracle, or just an run of incredibly good luck. All it takes is a spark, after all.
Conservatives claim they are not to blame if someone who may be mentally unstable takes their rhetoric “the wrong way,” and acts out violently. But they are accountable, as all politicians should be, for using rhetoric responsibly, and dousing the fire when the ballots are counted and the results finalized -- before the flames grow into a destructive force.
To anyone paying attention, the link between the recession and body count on Main Street, is as obvious as the wailing sirens, flashing lights, and crime scene markers that may be coming to a neighborhood near you. The stories of foreclosure driven suicide are as old as the once headline-making suicides of Raymond and Deanna Donaca, Carlene Balderama, the attempted suicide of Addie Polk, and the Karthick Rajaram murder-suicide. It’s also a new as stories of foreclosure-driven “suicide-by-cop” in the cases of James Ferrario and Kurt Aho.
As early as 2008, seven in ten Americans were worried about maintaining their standard of living in the midst of economic crisis. As CAF noted at the time, in a report titled “The Stress Test,” seven years of conservative economic policies leading up to the crisis left living standards under stress after the crisis hit. Nearly four years later, foreclosures are a symptom of our untreated economic sickness, and the American Psychological Associations Annual “Stress in America” report, indicates that money, work and the economy are the most frequently cited causes of stress for Americans -- and have been for the past 5 years. It’s also making us mad. The APA reports that “irritability or anger” tops the list of reported symptoms of stress, followed by “feeling nervous or anxious,” and “feeling depressed or sad.”
Foreclosure suicides are just one indicator. “Going postal” has been a frightening reality in American workplaces at least since the term was first coined in 1986, but experts see the recession playing a role in recent incidents of workplace violence like the 2010 shootings in Manchester, Connecticut, and St. Louis, Missouri.
Thus far, Americans have been spared a full-tilt, Euro-style austerity debacle. Instead, we’ve had the next-worst thing; what Paul Krugman called a “de facto austerity”, in the form of “huge spending and employment cuts at the state and local level.” This “de facto” austerity is largely the result of conservatives obstructing of any and all job creation bills -- including proposals to keep teachers, police officers, and fire fighters working -- and demanding cuts that would cost hundreds of thousands of state and local jobs. The result is a loss of some 440,000 federal, state, and local government jobs, accounting for more than half of jobs lost in many states.
At the state level, government accounted for more than half of all job losses for industries that lost jobs since Aug. 2010 in 27 states, and made up 100 percent of losses for industries that lost jobs in Arizona, Idaho, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Government losses also made up more than 50 percent of losses in seven of the 10 states with the largest number of jobs lost, and six of the 10 states with unemployment rates above 9.5 percent.
Of course, the private sector will absorb some of these losses and thankfully we have seen a positive net change in employment for most of these states since Aug. 2010. But make no mistake, the idea that drastic cuts to public budgets would somehow spur private-sector growth is a myth that has undermined recovery efforts both in the United States and in Europe. In reality, cuts to public-sector budgets have a significant negative private-sector impact. As my colleague Ethan Pollack has demonstrated, “for every dollar of budget cuts, over half the jobs and economic activity will be lost in the private sector.” Net change in employment since Aug. 2010 may be positive for most states, but it’s frustrating to think how much better these job numbers might be if we hadn’t spent the past 16 months shooting ourselves in the foot.
How much worse can things get if the result of the election is an economic agenda that slashes public sector spending, bleeds the public sector even more, increases unemployment, hobbles what currently passes for a recovery, aand primarily benefits Wall Street and the one percent? Take a look at what’s happening in Europe, and what starting to happen here, and it isn’t hard to guess.
(Depression image via Bigstock)