Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people in high-income countries, after road injury. According to the World Health Organization, the intervention that has the most imminent potential to bring down the number of suicides is restricting access to pesticides that can be used for self-poisoning. However, a more effective measure may be improving the standard of living by raising the minimum wage. A 26-year study found that for every single US dollar increase in the minimum wage, the suicide rate falls by 3.5% to 6%.
“Despite progress [worldwide], one person still dies every 40 seconds from suicide,” said WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “Every death is a tragedy for family, friends and colleagues. Yet suicides are preventable. We call on all countries to incorporate proven suicide prevention strategies into national health and education programmes in a sustainable way.”
In 2017, suicides accounted for nearly one in five deaths among young people aged 18 to 24. The number of preventable suicide deaths has only increased over the years in the United States, with suicide rates jumping by more than 30% in half of all states between 1999 and 2017.
A combination of individual, relationship, community, and societal factors contribute to the risk of suicide, including a family history of suicide, alcohol and substance abuse, and physical illness.
Financial stressors have always been associated with suicide risk, but less was known about the potential impact some economic interventions might have on suicide rates.
Researchers at the Department of Epidemiology at Emory University in Atlanta wanted to fill the gap in our knowledge. To this aim, they looked at the difference between the effective state and federal minimum hourly wage for all 50 states and Washington DC and state unemployment and suicide rates.
The analysis covered 18- to 64-year olds and looked at changes in the minimum wage for every month between 1990 and 2015.
Between 1990 and 2015, there were 478 changes in state minimum wages across US states. The average difference in wages between the states at and above the federal minimum wage was US$ 2,200/year for a full-time employee.
During the same time period, nearly 400,000 people with a high school education or less took their own lives compared with nearly 140,000 people with a college degree or higher.
Increases in the minimum wage seem to have no impact on the suicide rate among those with a college degree, likely because stressors other than finances prompted them to take their own lives. However, there was a significant effect among those with a high school education or less — every dollar increase in the minimum wage led to a 3.5-6% reduction in suicides.
This relationship was mitigated by state-level unemployment rate. When there weren’t enough jobs, progressively higher minimum wages were linked to lower suicide rates. This association weakened when unemployment was low.
Bearing these estimates in mind, the authors of the new study calculated that 13,800 suicides could have been prevented between 2009 (a peak unemployment year following the financial crash) and 2015 if the minimum wage had increased by $1. A $2 increase would have prevented 25,900 suicides.
“Our findings are consistent with the notion that policies designed to improve the livelihoods of individuals with less education, who are more likely to work at lower wages and at higher risk for adverse mental health outcomes, can reduce the suicide risk in this group,” the authors concluded in their study published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.
“Our findings also suggest that the potential protective effects of a higher minimum wage are more important during times of high unemployment,” they added.