Sweeping Pain and Economic Suicides

On April 22, the New York Times published an article entitled “Sweeping Pain as Suicides Hit a 30-year High”.  According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the number of suicides in the United States rose from 29,199 in 1999 to 42,773 in 2014.  The issue that jumped out at me was the increase in suicides motivated by economic distress among middle-aged adults.   Katherine Hempstead, one of the researchers in the study, said in a PBS News Hour interview that

“We did look to see [if] we could associate any type of circumstances associated with this rising rate of suicide amongst the middle aged.  And, sure enough, we did see an increasing reference to things like job problems, personal finances and foreclosures, bankruptcies, things that really accelerated during the time of the recession. But we see that those trends are kind of persisting even when a lot of people feel like the economy’s recovered quite a bit — but maybe those improvements aren’t being felt by everybody. And the middle-aged are particularly vulnerable to those kinds of pressures because they’re breadwinners, they have dependents, their own retirement might not be secure, they might have children to put through college so they can be particularly affected by those kinds of economic problems.”

While Googling, I came across an article with the same theme entitled “Economic suicides in the Great Recession in Europe and North America”. (Reeves et al., 2014, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24925987. The authors, three psychiatrists, start by acknowledging Durkheim’s classic 1897 finding that economic crises aggravate a “suicidal tendency”.   By extension to the latest crisis, they note that “There has been a substantial rise in ‘economic suicides’ in the Great Recessions afflicting Europe and North America. We estimate that the Great Recession is associated with at least 10,000 additional economic suicides between 2008 and 2010…Job loss, debt and foreclosure increase risks of suicidal thinking.”

Can a complexity theory of power (CTP) cast any light on this tragic phenomenon?  If so, where is the power?  How can the seemingly impersonal, anonymous forces of international and national economies “exercise power”?

A theme I have long wanted to (but have yet to) incorporate into a complexity theory of power is Galtung’s notion of “structural violence”, described in Wikipedia as “a form of violence wherein some social structure or social institution may harm people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs.”  This complements the CTP notion of power exercised by one party over another with disorganizing (harmful) consequences for the party subjected to power.  But who then is responsible?  The “economy”?

The key word in addressing this question is “avoidable” and it plays a central role in both Galtung’s discussion and the psychiatrists’ study.  For Galtung, violence is structural, if, for example, “people are starving when this is objectively avoidable”.  And the psychiatrists write that “A critical question for policy and psychiatric practice is whether these suicide rises are inevitable (emphasis added). Marked cross-national variations in suicides in the recession offer one clue that they are potentially avoidable (emphasis added).”  Lead researcher Aaron Reeves told the BBC that countries successful in breaking the link between economic downturns and suicide “invest in schemes that help people return to work, such as training, advice and even subsidized wages…” (Huffington Post).  The authors conclude that “some [European] societies have successfully de-coupled economic shocks from adverse mental health outcomes” and this inspires “hope that it will be possible to eliminate the association of economic shocks with a rise in suicidality.”

Knowing that economically triggered suicide can be avoided by enlightened public policy enables us to place the locus of responsibility for eliminating this association squarely upon every human society, a responsibility that weighs extra-heavily on U.S. society where powerful, increasingly concentrated economic forces guided by a laissez faire cum social Darwinist ideology effectively dismiss such suicides as an unfortunate but inevitable product of “market adjustments”.

Suicide is self-inflicted maximum entropy.  Like all deaths, it is a personal descent toward the ultimate form of disorganized complexity.  The absence of safety nets aimed at preventing economic suicides is an indicator of disorganized complexity at the societal level just as the presence of support networks is an indicator self-organized complexity in the society at large.

Entropy is not a state that suddenly occurs at the moment someone takes his or her life.  The fall into disorganized complexity occurs over time.  It is a process of closure.  This approach to complexity theory differs radically from those systems perspectives that define human beings and human society as open systems by definition.  As Edgar Morin has long argued, human systems have not only opening but closing potential.  Human complexity theory flounders when it fails to recognize this potential.


Galtung, Johan. 1969. “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research”, Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 6, No. 3.

Huffington Post, “Great Recession Linked To 10,000 Suicides”,  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/06/13/suicide-recession_n_5491687.html

Reeves, Aaron, Martin McKee and David Stuckler. 2014. “Economic suicides in the Great Recession in Europe and North America”, June, British Journal of Psychiatry.

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