• Robb G. Best

A Surprising Way to Lower Suicide Rates

It’s a sobering problem: in 2017, the US alone saw over 47,000 preventable suicide deaths. That same year, suicide was the cause of death for 19% of people between 18 and 24. And between 1999 and 2017, half of US states experienced a 30% increase in their suicide rate.

When we think of policies that could prevent some of those deaths, we tend to think in terms of access to counseling, destigmatizing mental health issues, and suicide help lines. While those are all valid causes, the authors of a 26-year study in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health have new findings as well.

It’s been established that financial stress increases suicide risk, but the researchers wanted to better understand the possible role of economic interventions like minimum wage requirements. To do that, they studied the minimum wage across America, examining the difference between each state minimum wage and the federal minimum wage, as well as each state’s unemployment and suicide rate among 18 to 64-year-olds. They collected this data every month from 1990 to 2015.

Among their findings was that suicide rates were more than twice as high among those with a high school education or less, as compared to those with a college degree. Looking across the states, it also became apparent that states with higher minimum wages saw a lower suicide rate among this at-risk group. In fact, the research suggests that for every dollar increase to a state’s minimum wage, the suicide rates of adults with a high school education or less went down by between 3.5% and 6%. The link between high minimum wage and lower suicide rate was strongest when a state was experiencing high unemployment, the study found.

A 3.5% to 6% reduction may not sound like very much, but looking at the data, the researchers calculated that, following the financial crash of 2009 and the related surge in unemployment, raising the minimum wage by $1 could have staved of the suicides of over 18,000 people, while raising it by $2 could have prevented 25,900 suicides. Looking at the entire 26-year period they studied, they found that between 1990 and 2015, an increase of $1 could have prevented 27,550 suicides, and an increase of $2 to the minimum wage could have saved the life of 57,350 people.

Of course, this was just an observational study, which means it can show correlation, not cause and effect. Still, they write, “Our findings are consistent with the notion that policies designed to improve the livelihoods of individuals with less education, who are more likely to work at lower wages and at higher risk for adverse mental health outcomes, can reduce the suicide risk in this group.”

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