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October 23, 2016

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Tough times: Slow recovery in Las Vegas may be factor in suicide increase


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Mike Murphy

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The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The number for the Nevada Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-877-855-HOPE (4673). More information is available at

Risk factors for suicide include:

  • Depression and other mental disorders, or a substance-abuse disorder (often in combination with other mental disorders). More than 90 percent of people who die by suicide have these risk factors.
  • Prior suicide attempt
  • Family history of mental disorder or substance abuse
  • Family history of suicide
  • Family violence, including physical or sexual abuse
  • Firearms in the home, the method used in more than half of suicides
  • Incarceration
  • Exposure to the suicidal behavior of others, such as family members, peers, or media figures.

-- Source: National Institute of Mental Health

Few who killed themselves left notes of explanation, but some experts blame the recession for the sharp increase in suicides in Clark County last year.

They say there’s a clear correlation between self-destruction and the devastation recessions bring, such as job loss and home foreclosures, both at record levels in Southern Nevada.

However, history suggests there’s more to the story than recessions. Nevada’s highest suicide rate from 1981 to 2007, the last year for which national data are available, occurred during a recession in 1982. But the state’s suicide rate dropped during another recession in 2001, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“There are many factors that may increase the risk of suicidal behavior,” CDC spokeswoman Gail Hayes said. “Economic stress or job loss are just two of those factors.”

Other factors Hayes identified are previous suicide attempts, family history of suicide, depression, other mental illness, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, stressful life event or loss, easy access to lethal methods, incarceration and exposure to the suicidal behavior of others.

As Clark County Coroner Michael Murphy has found, less than 30 percent of those who commit suicide leave behind notes, making it hard to determine reasons. His gut tells him there is a connection between suicide and rough economic times.

“I’m not going to tell you that money issues haven’t been a factor because they certainly have,” Murphy said. “It’s just hard to get your head around something that is so illogical.”

His office recorded 346 suicides in 2007, 382 in 2008 when the Great Recession was under way, 359 in 2009 and a jump to 400 last year. Although the recession officially ended in June 2009, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Mass., one wouldn’t know it by looking at Las Vegas’ economy, which declined last year.

One academic who has studied suicides in Las Vegas is Matt Wray, assistant sociology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia.

“What we are seeing in Las Vegas in recent years is a strong statistical signal that the unprecedented four-year decline in Las Vegas is resulting in more suicides,” he said. “It may continue to do so until the unemployment and foreclosure crises pass. Or it may reach a plateau and level off.

“We ought to act on ... the idea that suicides are preventable and that we live in a time of heightened vulnerability, especially among the middle-aged and elderly, who often feel the effects of recessions more acutely,” he said.

The unemployed are two to three times more likely than employed people to commit suicide, but the risk also increases for those who hold jobs during a recession because they have a greater chance of experiencing financial or mental health strains or fear they’ll join the unemployed, Wray said.

“There is very good evidence nationally and internationally that recessions are correlated with increased suicide rates,” Wray said. “Interestingly, suicide rates increase during times of economic boom as well. It’s during periods of slow, stable growth that suicide rates remain stable.”

People are at greater risk of killing themselves in good times if they feel left behind by the boom period or if the resulting population growth stretches basic health and social services too thin for new residents, Wray said.

“Sudden and dramatic population growth can weaken supportive networks of friends, family and neighbors that would provide support in times of personal difficulty,” he said.

But does one factor push someone over the edge more than any other?

Wray said he didn’t know.

“Job loss, mounting debt, losing one’s home or marriage, these can all be tightly related to one another and often occur together, creating a chain of adversity that overwhelms individuals in recessionary times,” he said.

In 1982, when Nevada led the nation with a suicide rate of 28.8 per 100,000 residents, the country was in a recession that lasted from July 1981 to December 1982. The state’s unemployment rate averaged 9.9 percent in 1982, which wasn’t topped until 2009.

After Nevada’s suicide rate dipped to 22.6 in 1989, it crept up to 24.1 in 1990 and 24.6 in 1991, overlapping the recession that extended from July 1990 to March 1991.

But in the mid-1990s, Nevada’s rate began declining for unknown reasons and fell to 18.5 in 2001, despite a recession aggravated by the 9/11 attacks. The state’s unemployment rate was just 5.3 percent, higher than the previous five years but lower than in 2002. By 2007, Nevada’s suicide rate dropped to 18.3 but was still fifth highest nationally.

In Clark County, the rate last year was 20.5 per 100,000, based on 400 suicides and a population of 1.95 million.

National rates provide mixed signals on the correlation between suicides and poor economies. The U.S. suicide rate was 12.2 in the second year of the 1981-82 recession but rose to 12.9 in 1986, long after that recession ended. After dipping to 12.25 in 1989, it rose to 12.4 in 1990, coinciding with the beginning of the 1990-91 recession. But the 10.7 rate during the 2001 recession was exceeded the next several years.

“As for the national data, there is no correlation between recessions and suicide, but there is between unemployment and suicide,” said Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology in Washington, which promotes suicide research and prevention programs. “As for Nevada’s data, given the months of the recession, you would have expected an uptick (in suicides) in 2009 if there was a clear association.

“This is not to say that loss of job, loss of income, loss of status, foreclosed homes, etc., do not destroy one’s ego, do not bring on shame and humiliation that will tear at the soul of those vulnerable,” he said.

Berman’s association says on its website that “when combined with the loss of job, home loss has been found to be one of the most common economic strains associated with suicides. In contrast to many other developed nations, the U.S. provides little cushion to buffer these strains. Unemployment benefits are generally limited in duration and are considerably less than full-pay levels ...”

Two economists, Timothy Classen of Loyola University in Chicago and Richard Dunn of Texas A&M University found last year that there is a relationship between job loss and suicide. They studied data from 1996 to 2005, when unemployment benefits typically ran out after 26 weeks.

“We have found some evidence that the increase in suicides following mass layoffs occurs about six months after the job loss, which is also around the time that unemployment insurance benefits expire,” Classen said. “This suggests to us that the financial constraint placed on families when unemployment insurance benefits expire may be the more compelling explanation for suicides occurring as a result of job separations, rather than the immediate effect of job loss.

“Obviously, job loss and general economic conditions have large effects throughout communities as you are likely witnessing in Nevada. Job losses lead to lower incomes, which lead to inability to pay off mortgages, which leads to foreclosures, which lead to the dissolution of social networks, which may also result in higher suicide rates.”

But Linda Flatt, facilitator for the Nevada suicide prevention office in Las Vegas, cautioned against making too much of a possible relationship between suicide and the recession.

“It’s something that is so complex,” Flatt said. “We have to look at suicide as a multifaceted issue. It’s not only about the economy. We don’t want suicide to be an option for someone having economic problems.”

Anyone who needs help is encouraged to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll free at 1-800-273-8255. Flatt also recommended that individuals consult their physicians or seek counseling.

Other options available in Las Vegas include Southern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services, Montevista Hospital and Spring Mountain Treatment Center.

Wray said “if a family member, friend, classmate or colleague appears to be stressed and depressed, consider asking them if they have ever thought about harming themselves. If the answer is yes, or an unconvincing no, convince them that help is available and refer them to a person or agency that can help.”

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