Depression in a Recession: Unemployment, Wealth Inequality and Suicide

“To him that hath, more shall be given; and from him that hath not, the little that he hath shall be taken away.” – Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defence of Poetry (1821)

The rich, as the saying goes, keep getting richer. Wealth disparity is, of course, nothing new — Shelley penned the above words nearly two centuries ago. However, in the United States, the distribution of wealth hasn’t been so lopsided since before the Great Depression. In 2010, income disparity in the US was nearly twice the average of every other industrialized nation on earth. Between 1992 and 2007, the 400 wealthiest Americans saw their incomes increase by 392 percent, while their tax rates plummeted by 37 percent over the same period. By contrast — despite 80 percent gains in productivity between 1979 and 2010 — the income for the average American worker remained stagnant at $50,000 per year.

While Wall Street profits jumped 720 percent Between 2007 and 2009, the unemployment rate climbed by 102 percent during the same period. One of the side effects of wealth inequality, at least for those on the losing side, is clinical depression. Studies show that unemployment and poverty are two of the main predictors of mood disorders such as depression. Depression is the leading cause of suicide; and suicide is on the rise.

More Americans commit suicide each year than die in motor vehicle accidents. Every year, more than 500,000 people attempt to take their own lives in the US and 30,000 of those attempts are successful. Of course correlation and causation aren’t the same thing, but there seems to be strong evidence that those who are being most hurt in the current economic crisis are killing themselves in ever greater numbers.

A UK study at the beginning of the global financial crisis found a significant uptick in suicides — a six percent increase between 2007 and 2008. “Sadly this increase in suicide is not unexpected,” said Rory O’Connor, a professor at Stirling University’s suicidal behaviour research group in an interview with the Guardian newspaper. “[W]e know there’s a relationship between past recessions and an increase in suicides.” As more people lose their jobs there’s an increased risk of [further] suicides,” he added, citing family and relationship stress as well as a loss of support networks. Prior to the recession, suicide rates had been falling in the UK for a decade.

While politicians and pundits argue over how exactly to fix a struggling world economy, the middle class — as well as lower-income and poor people — are falling further and further behind. Sadly, many of those people are taking their own lives. Perhaps it’s time for governments to look at poverty, which is exacerbated by wealth inequality and social injustice, not just as a financial threat but as the public health crisis it truly is.

[box type=”important”]Note: If you or someone you care about is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The service is available 24 hours a day and all calls are confidential.[/box]


  1. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment
  2. A Defence of Poetry
  3. Depression and Suicide
  4. The Guardian UK
  5. Mental Health America
  6. Mother Jones
  7. National Institute of Mental Health
  8. Psychiatric Services


Michael Kerr

Michael Kerr is an award-winning freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in numerous publications both online and off, including Portland Business Journal, Healthline Networks, Eat Drink Better, USA Today and many others. He blogs about nutrition and fitness for Hive Health Media and other websites.

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