The worldwide banking and financial crisis that started in the summer of 2008 led to many casualties beyond the ones that make the headlines, such as people who have lost jobs or defaulted on their mortgages and lost their homes. A new analysis published in The Lancet calculates the literal casualties — people who have died. More specifically, Europeans who committed suicide or were killed in vehicle accidents.
In all but one country, suicide rates jumped with unemployment rates, according to the letter by David Stuckler of the sociology department at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, and his associates (Lancet 2011;378:124-125).
On the other hand, road deaths declined, probably due to higher unemployment leading to less car use. And there’s an important side effect from this. The availability of organs for transplants, which come mainly from motor vehicle accidents, declined substantially in Spain and Ireland, where traffic deaths dropped more than 25% between 2007 and 2009.
In the end, did more people live or die from the financial crisis? The authors didn’t say, but I did a few rough calculations below. Plus, the study did not estimate potential deaths caused by the decrease in available organs for transplant, so we’ll have to ignore that for now.
First, some of the study’s findings. Complete data were available only from 10 countries, which the investigators divided into two groups for comparison. Six were in the European Union before 2004 (Austria, Finland, Greece, Ireland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom), and four were in the expanded EU after 2004 (Czech Republic, Hungary, Lithuania, and Romania).
Across the EU as a whole, unemployment jumped nearly 3% (a 35% relative increase) from 2007 to 2009. While suicide rates had been trending downward before 2007, that trend reversed with the financial meltdown. In 2008, suicide rates increased by 7% in the old EU countries and increased further in 2009. The newer EU states seemed a bit more resilient, with less than a 1% increase in suicide rates in 2008 and further increases in 2009.
Traffic fatalities declined in each country, to a degree influenced by pre-recession rates. Lithuania’s high pre-recession rate of road deaths decreased by nearly 50%, while the already low rate of traffic fatalities in the Netherlands left little room to shrink. Other data show a similar trend in the United States during this period, when traffic fatalities declined by more than 10% to the lowest level ever reported, they said. (They didn’t mention U.S. suicide rates.)
The countries facing the greatest financial crises saw the greatest increases in suicide rates, by 17% in Greece and Lithuania, and by 13% in Ireland.
To give one example of absolute numbers, the United Kingdom’s suicide rate rose from a low in 2007 of 6.14 per 100,000 people under the age of 65 years to a 2008 rate of 6.75 per 100,000 people younger than 65, a rate that stayed steady in 2009. Traffic fatalities fell from 4.92 to 3.68 per 100,000 population from 2007 to 2009.
The anomaly was Austria, where suicides declined by 5% between 2007 and 2009. Previously, the authors had speculated that suicide risk might be mitigated in countries with formal and informal social protections, such as active labor market policies and strong social networks. That description fits Austria. But that description also fits Finland, where they unexpectedly saw a 5% increase in the suicide rate, counter to historical trends in previous recessions.
Here’s where I go rogue and try to crunch some numbers using these findings, using just the U.K. as an example. The U.K.’s Office of National Statistics pegged its population at 62,262,000 in mid-2010, and 83% was younger than 65 years (51,677,460). Let’s very roughly assume the same population existed in 2007 and 2009.
Applying the rates reported in The Lancet, 32 more people would have killed themselves in 2009 than in 2007, but 77 fewer people would have died from vehicle accidents in 2009 compared with 2007. Overall, 45 more people would be alive in 2009, probably because the recession made it financially too difficult to drive as much they did before.
Seems to me there are two morals to this story. Financial crises can be fatally hard on the human psyche. And cars are dangerous. I’m in favor of policies that help us avoid both.