Previous research has documented a link between downturns in the economy and suicide among adults. But how do those downturns ripple throughout families and communities, and in particular, how do massive job losses affect the mental health of teens? A new study has found that, sadly, many teens are not immune to the stress of a struggling economy.
Published online last week in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers found that increases in statewide job losses are associated with heightened suicide-related behaviors among adolescent girls and black teens. Specifically, the study found that job losses among 1 percent of a state’s working-age population increased the probability of young girls and black teens reporting suicide-related behaviors by 2 to 3 percentage points. The same job losses did not have an impact on the suicide behaviors of boys, whites or Hispanics. To conduct the study, researchers examined Youth Risk Behavior Survey data as well as Bureau of Labor Statistics data between 1997 and 2009. The study noted that youth suicide is a “serious public health concern,” with suicide being the third leading cause of death for young people ages 10 to 24 years old.
Anna Gassman-Pines, a lead author on the study and an assistant professor public policy, psychology and neuroscience at the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University, said that on one hand, the results weren’t entirely unexpected, considering previous research on adults. On the other hand, Gassman-Pines told me that the results were somewhat surprising, as the uptick in teen suicide behavior was an indirect effect of job loss — in other words, it’s very unlikely that it was the affected teen who lost the job.
So, if the results tell a story of mostly indirect effects, how can researchers be sure of a link? Gassman-Pines responded that if the study only examined one period of time, researchers might be worried that the uptick in suicide behaviors was due to other variables. However, this study gathered more than a decade worth of data, and researchers consistently found the same unfortunate trends. Gassman-Pines also noted that the data covered periods of economic boom and recession, and so the findings are “not just a story about recession – it’s really a story about when these mass layoffs and closings occur, what are some of the consequences?”
Gassman-Pines and her colleagues found that job losses among 1 percent of the working-age population increased the probability of teen girls reporting suicidal ideation by 2 percentage points and suicide plans by 2.2 percentage points. Among black adolescents, the same job losses increased self-reported suicidal ideation by 2.3 percentage points, suicide plans by 3.1 percentage points and suicide attempts by 2 percentage points. The study noted that job losses seemed to exacerbate pre-existing gender gaps, as girls are more likely than boys to engage in suicide-related behavior and experience serious mood or anxiety disorders. Also, while black youth tend to experience lower levels of suicide-related behaviors and mental illness overall, the study results are consistent with previous research finding that local job losses are associated with a disproportionate use of emergency psychiatric care among black teens. Gassman-Pines and study co-authors Elizabeth Oltmans Ananat and Christina Gibson-Davis write:
Follow-up analyses increased our confidence that the association between statewide job loss and adolescent suicide-related behaviors was not attributable to other aspects of states’ economic circumstances, including the unemployment rate, poverty rate, gross domestic product, or home mortgage delinquency rate. These results suggest that our measure of job loss was not simply a proxy for other aspects of a state’s economic climate but instead represented a meaningful economic shock that led to changes in girls’ and black adolescents’ suicide-related behaviors.
“I think most importantly, we should all be thinking about the widespread effects of these kinds of layoffs and business closings,” Gassman-Pines told me. “We tend to think about the people who have been laid off as the only affected people who may need services and while certainly they’re the most affected, we’d benefit from thinking about the needs that go beyond the directly affected workers.”
She said the study findings may be particularly useful to schools, social service workers, after-school programs and other community stakeholders who regularly work with young people and at-risk youth.
“These are big enough job losses that people are generally aware of them, so just knowing about this link might help (stakeholders) intervene early and prevent suicides down the road,” she said.
To request a full copy of the study, visit the American Journal of Public Health.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.