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Foreclosures tied to higher suicide risk in study

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By Alan Mozes
HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, May 20, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Losing a home to foreclosure may boost a person's suicide risk, according to a new study that looked at pre- and post-"Great Recession" data.

The trend seems most prevalent among middle-aged adults, the researchers said.

"Suicide rates do tend to go up during recessions," said study lead author Jason Houle, who was a heath and society scholar with the University of Wisconsin-Madison at the time he launched the current review.

"But between 2006 and 2007, we started to see middle-aged suicide rates soar to levels that actually exceed elderly Americans, which is the group that typically tends to have the highest [suicide] rates," he said.

Houle's team tracked U.S. suicide rates before and during the housing meltdown that precipitated the so-called "Great Recession."

"It seemed common sense that foreclosures might be playing a role," Houle said. "This [the middle aged] group has a lot of debt. It's the most likely group to have a mortgage, and the one that's gearing up for retirement. So a foreclosure or simple loss of equity could be financially devastating, because they have much less time to recover than a younger person."

Furthermore, Houle added, "the perceived sense of helplessness might far surpass what other age groups might feel. Bottom-line, [the middle-aged] have a lot more to lose."

Houle, who is now an assistant professor of sociology at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., co-wrote the study along with sociologist Michael Light of Purdue University. They published the findings in the June issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

According to the Washington, D.C.-based American Association of Suicidology (AAS), the most recent information shows that in 2010 more than 38,000 Americans committed suicide, with the highest suicide risk seen among middle-aged men and women between 45 and 54.

The overall figure represents a 3 percent increase over 2009, the AAS said. Suicide in now the 10th-leading cause of death in the United States. In 2010, males were nearly four times more likely to complete suicide than females, though women were three times more likely to make a suicide attempt.

In the new study, Houle and Light examined U.S. death statistics for the years 2005 through 2010, compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During that time, suicide rates shot up roughly 13 percent.

That information was paired with household socio-economic information provided by the U.S. Census Bureau, as well as with public foreclosure records collected by RealtyTrac.

The study authors said U.S. foreclosures hit an all-time high of 2.9 million in 2010, coinciding with a rise in suicide rates, most notably among 46- to 64-year-olds, which experienced the biggest recession-linked bump in suicides.

"After looking at the situation state-by-state," said Houle, "that is the tentative conclusion we reached: that the foreclosure crisis could very well be the reason for the suicide uptick."

"Lots of research has been done on recessions and mental health," Houle added. "But it mostly looks at how unemployment rates correlate with suicide. But the 'Great Recession' was unique in that it was perhaps the worst housing crisis we've ever seen. So it's important to note that our finding of a foreclosure-suicide connection held even after accounting for other pieces of the economic puzzle, like joblessness, poverty, and divorce."

But he cautioned that "at this point this is just a working hypothesis. We can't actually prove that foreclosures led to suicides. This is ongoing work."

For his part, AAS Executive Director Lanny Berman expressed little surprise at the findings.

"In my mind there's no question that the recession, financial strains, foreclosures, unemployment, all of that, has had something to do with the rise in suicide over recent years," he said. "But at the same time, it's important to know that the suicide rate goes up and down over time. And during the 1990s it went up, and that had nothing to do with foreclosures.

"So the point is that suicide is not simple," Berman continued. "It's not necessarily an outcome due to one negative event or series of events. It's often a tragedy resulting from a whole bunch of things going bad at once. Yes, financial strains, which often contribute to relationship strains, are certainly significant precipitating events. Yet the great majority of people who experience a foreclosure survive and thrive, while others who have no such experience do not. So it's a complicated situation."

Berman advised that those who may be concerned about loved ones at risk of suicide should be on the lookout for key warning signs. They can include dramatic mood swings, expressions of uncontrolled anger or recklessness, feelings of anxiety or withdrawal, substance abuse, and/or verbal or written threats to harm oneself.

More information

Learn more about suicide at the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

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