Economic recovery? Not according to an alarming increase in suicides

Earlier this month, some startling numbers regarding suicide in the United States came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of suicides has been increasing since 2006, and CDC researchers say one factor in the increase is the recession and unemployment in the United States.  Another CDC study found that suicides rose alarmingly amongst middle-aged Americans. Suicide rates for people aged 35 to 64 rose 28 percent between 1999 and 2010.

These numbers come at the same time as a stream of published reports that look at how highly skilled workers — in the age range marked by skyrocketing suicide rates — are being shut out of the our nation’s so-called economic recovery.

The San Francisco Chronicle recently reported that Silicon Valley tech firms, in apparent examples of ageism, are bypassing experienced workers over a certain age, with their higher salaries and more expensive benefits packages, in favor of younger, cheaper employees. The total number of jobs in the valley and in San Francisco’s tech hub are on the rise, but tech executives say they need to look overseas for educated workers to fill them. In the meantime, many experienced IT workers remain unemployed.

A Contra Costa Times story looked at how some older workers are finding work, but at wages far below what they were earning five, 10, even 20 years ago. Nearly half the workers rehired last year earn less than they did before losing their jobs in the economic meltdown. About two-thirds of older Americans in the baby boom generation now earn less than they did.

“I feel like I’ve lost 10 years of my life,” Howard Greenstein, 54, of San Jose tells the Bay Area News Group. After a tech company he worked for went bust in 2001, he worked a series of contract jobs and part-time stints before landing a full-time program manager job. But he says he’s making the same money he did in 1995.

The annual California Budget Project report, “Uneven Progress: What the Economic Recovery Has Meant for California Workers” finds that economic recovery has not reached large groups of people, despite three years of job growth.  Long-term unemployment also remains an issue, as does wage stagnation and the fact that many of the 1.4 million jobs lost in California during the recession have yet to come back.

“After more than three years of job growth, the pace of recovery has been on par with that of previous recoveries in the state, which is bad news for California’s workers given the historic severity of job losses during the Great Recession,” the report says. “A majority of California counties still have unemployment rates in the double digits, and long-term unemployment remains a serious concern: More than two in five unemployed Californians have been searching for work for at least six months. And for those who do have work, this recovery has not yet produced the mix of jobs that would lead to broad-based economic growth.”

Silly me. I thought we were moving back into good times, where Americans were feeling so hopeful about their their economic futures. Or maybe a few are feeling hopeful–but many others are not.

Meanwhile, we as a society tend to avoid talking about suicide, in a way we wouldn’t avoid talking about heart disease, cancer or the other leading causes of death.  We don’t avoid many strident proclamations about the need to lower rates of violent crime and homicide or of creating policies and programs to reduce the number of people driving recklessly or under the influence, in order to lower the number of people dying in preventable deaths such as homicides and motor vehicle accidents.

Of course, going after heart disease, violent crime and drunken driving are noble causes. But what do you do about the fact that there are thousands of people who find life unendurable. The numbers of people in America who take their own lives constitutes a public health crisis.

The 38,364 people who died in suicide in 2010 exceeds the 33,687 killed in motor vehicle accidents. Another  CDC study found that the number of suicides was twice the number of homicides, with suicide the 11th leading cause of death among people 10 years and older, behind heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and pneumonia and influenza.

Perhaps we have a new public health crisis on our hands–middle-aged Americans coming to the realizing that they don’t want to face the future with complex levels of financial uncertainty. They worked many years to avoid that, to afford a decent middle class life with a nice home and maybe the opportunity to buy some nice things, go on vacations, be able to send their kids to college. Instead, because of huge financial setbacks, like a job loss, they might be facing a future in which they’re not sure they can get their teeth fixed and they have to look forward to scraping by eating Ramen noodles.

While the American Association of Suicidolgy told NBC News that economic recessions have not historically affected suicide rates, the organization says there now is a clear and direct relationship between unemployment and suicide. The group also raised concerns about the high foreclosure rate. “For most Americans, our homes are our primary investment and the locus of our identities and social support systems. When combined with the loss of job, home loss has been found to be one of the most common economic strains associated with suicides.”

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