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Health at work: Do depressions lead to suicide?

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 2008 film, Tôkyô Sonata looks at a man’s efforts to hide the fact he has been sacked from his family. Another character, in a similar situation, commits suicide.

With 24 suicides per 100,000 people, Japan has one of the highest suicide rates of all industrialised nations (the world average is around 15). Police have just released figures showing a 6% increase in suicides in year-on-year. Yasuyuki Shimizu, head of Lifelink, a suicide prevention charity, suggests this increase is due to the economic crisis and the end of the financial year. Unemployment is on the rise and the Japanese economy contracted by four percent in the first quarter of 2009.

This is not just a Japanese phenomenon. In the US, media were already reporting an increased incidence of suicide due to the financial crisis, in October, with the Samaritans in New York pointing to a 16% rise in calls in a year.

Rev. Canon Ann Malonee, vicar of Trinity, the iconic church at Wall Street & Broadway, said: “I’ve had a number of people say that this is the thing most reminiscent of 9/11 that’s happened here since”

“It’s that sense of having the rug pulled out from under them.”

But it may not just be people who have lost their jobs, their homes, or their savings who are most at risk. A Finnish study, looking at its economic downturn in the early 1990s, said that although unemployment rates among suicide attempters were higher than those within the general population, anything that can affect our mood — such as losing your job — can increase depressive feelings. Suicide is a frequent symptom of depression. These findings are replicated

Dr Shu-Sen Chang, co-author of a 2009 study by Britol and Taiwan researchers looking at the 1997-1998 Asian economic crisis said: “Further research into differences in the impact of economic downturns on suicide in different societies is needed. The results of such research will shed light on strategies to offset the impact of economic recessions on suicide.”

Driven or pushed?

Depression is an expected symptom among those who lose their jobs, but another group at risk are, perhaps surprisingly, those who have kept in work. Apart from feelings of guilt, heightened worry and stress, the arrival of summer highlights another risk factor.

Paul Newman, assistant-VP for HR at Oppenheimer Funds in Manhattan, says, about the Friday before Memorial Day weekend: “Compared with last year, we’re up 20% to 30% in employee attendance. Employees want to impress their bosses by limiting their vacation time.”

Eric Winegardner, VP at Monster.com says: “I hear a lot of guilt from people about the idea of taking off for a few days. They say they’re grateful just to have their jobs.”

Newman says: “If employees don’t take adequate time to recharge their batteries, they can exhaust themselves, which can lead to health-related issues and making silly mistakes.”

Stephen Platt, professor of Health Policy Research at the University of Edinburgh and a Samaritans’ Trustee, says: “Economic recession, especially when it is sudden and severe, can lead to an increase in suicide rates. This is not only because more people become unemployed and, as a result, more psychologically vulnerable, but also because those in employment feel threatened too. The fear of losing one’s job and pressures caused by a downturn in business, demotion or pension plan cutbacks can be bad for mental health and therefore increase suicide risk.”

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