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Suicide rates and the 1990s Asian economic crisis

Press release issued: 12 February 2009

Suicide rates increased as a result of the Asian economic crisis (1997-1998) but only in some of the countries affected, according to a new study from the University of Bristol published in Social Science & Medicine.

The research, a collaboration between Bristol and Taiwanese researchers, is the first comprehensive study of the impact of the Asian economic crisis on suicide rates; it may have implications for understanding the impact of the current global recession on suicide.

The researchers found an increase in the number of suicides in Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea.  However, the crisis did not appear to affect suicide rates in Taiwan or Singapore.

Using the World Health Organization’s mortality database and Taiwanese mortality statistics, the researchers looked at suicide and population figures for Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Thailand from 1985 to 2006. 

Compared to 1997, male suicide rates in 1998 rose by 39 per cent in Japan, 44 per cent in Hong Kong and 45 per cent in South Korea; rises in female rates were less marked.  Male rates also rose in Thailand but full assessment of the size of the increase was hampered by the lack of accurate data. 

The economic crisis was associated with 10,400 more suicides in 1998 compared to 1997 in Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea. 

Analyses indicated that some of the crisis’s impact on male suicides was attributable to increases in unemployment.  The rise in suicide mortality between 1997 and 1998 appeared to be more prominent in working-age men (15-64 year olds) than in retired men (65+year olds).

The crisis did not appear to affect trends in suicide rates in Taiwan and Singapore where the economic crisis had a smaller impact on GDP and unemployment. 

Dr Shu-Sen Chang, co-author of the study said: “Further research into differences in the impact of economic downturns on suicide in different societies is needed.  The results of such research will shed light on strategies to offset the impact of economic recessions on suicide.”

Other studies have shown that recession does not necessarily result in a rise in the number of suicides. For example, Finnish researchers who examined suicide rates during the economic cycle 1985-1995 found that suicide mortality in both males and females increased during an economic upswing and decreased during an economic recession.  Nevertheless the great economic depression of the 1930s was associated with a rise in suicides in many affected countries.

‘Was the economic crisis 1997–1998 responsible for rising suicide rates in East/Southeast Asia? A time-trend analysis for Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Thailand’ by Shu-Sen Chang, David Gunnell, Jonathan A. C. Sterne, Tsung-Hsueh Lu , Andrew T. A. Cheng  Social Science & Medicine (2009), doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2009.01.010

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