Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Why does unemployment make people want to die?

This is an article about suicide.  If you're experiencing suicidal thoughts there are places you can go for support. Find out more on the Mind website or call the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90.


Today saw the release of a new study in the British Medical Journal that shows how the rate of suicide has increased during the recession in the UK (link to paper here).  Importantly, a key finding in the study is that for every 10 per cent rise in unemployment, there is an associated 1.4 per cent increase in suicide.

This finding confirms the results of many previous studies: that unemployment is psychologically damaging and tends to increase the risk of suicide.  Indeed, it has been nothing but bad news for the unemployed during the past few weeks.  In July, the ONS released their major findings on subjective well-being; showing that the unemployed are one of the most unhappiest groups of all.

Why is unemployment such a miserable experience?

The question of why unemployment increases risk of suicide (and other harmful health behaviours) has been a key question in the social sciences for some time.  This is not necessarily an obvious question to ask.  Economists have tended to assume that leisure is good and work is a burden.  Since the unemployed have copious amounts of leisure, shouldn't they have decent levels of happiness?

The answer shown in studies like the BMJ one is definitely not.  And so explanations and theories have been proposed.  The most obvious explanation is income: i.e.: unemployment has a tendency to intensify experiences of low income and poverty.  This is especially true of the UK, which has a social security system with very low income replacement rates.

The second most obvious explanation is that it has nothing to do with unemployment at all.  This is the idea that people with physical and mental health problems are more likely to end up unemployed anyway.  Unemployment just happens to be a common experience and has nothing to do with the problems it's strongly correlated with.

The psychosocial environment of unemployment

While these two explanations are important, many studies have found that unemployment does have a causal relationship with the psychological problems associated with it.  Further, this important study by Winkelmann and Winkelmann found that unemployment had a harmful effect irrespective of income and that its psychosocial effects - rather than its economic ones - were of prime importance.

So what is so psychologically damaging about unemployment, for most people who experience it?  Marie Jahoda's theory of latent deprivation, developed in the 1980s, is still probably the most well-known psychological explanation.  Jahoda argued that employment fulfilled a range of psychological requirements she called 'latent functions': time structure, social activity, collective endeavour, regular activity, status and identity.

The problem with unemployment then is that it deprives people of 'latent functions' that are so valuable for mental well-being.  Jahoda's theory has come under some criticism since.  Most notably from David Fryer, who argued that unemployment is damaging because it restricts a person's sense of agency and autonomy.  And, to my mind, there is certainly something to be said about the way in which unemployment is socially constructed and, consequently, stigmatized.  Yet Jahoda's theory remains a good example of the kind of non-pecuniary benefits people acquire from work.  And the potential dangers of losing these benefits through a spell of unemployment.

What can we do about it?

If unemployment does have these effects, what can we do about it?  All in all, I would suggest three policy responses:

  • Increase the value of unemployment benefits.  We still know that low income is a major problem for unemployed people, especially in the UK with the very low rate of JSA.
  • Do much more to keep people in work. We also know that for many people, work is psychologically beneficial.  Doing more to keep people in jobs should similarly be a policy objective.
  • Invest more in better active labour market policies.  The potential of active labour market policies (or welfare-to-work ) to improve the experience of unemployment is still relatively unknown.  There is some evidence to suggest these policies do have beneficial social outcomes - and this is something my own PhD research is focusing on.  This would involve providing more services to unemployment people, such as work experience schemes, training and education.
Finally though, beneath the public policy and statistics these are ultimately tragic human stories.  What they remind us of - and what governments seem to have ignored - is that unemployment is never a price worth paying.



  1. Have you read the article in Spiked by Neil Davenport. I wonder what you think? A letter to the Editor!

  2. I can only speak from personal experience of being unemployed myself and of working with unemployed people in welfare to work settings, but I would place much more emphasis than you appear to do on stigma. Sadly, most of this stigma seems to me to be generated from government and mainstream media, and to be purely ideological in its basis - blame the poor for being poor, make the poor pay for the rich. It's all rather abusive.

  3. Thanks for the comment. I agree stigma is probably a strong determinant. To check that though we would have to look at how the effect of unemployment on people's well-being has changed over time. Presumably, given that stigma has increased, we would expect unemployment to have a stronger effect.

    Interestingly, this study suggested that unemployment has a deleterious effect across many countries, even the Scandinavian countries. I think this hints that stigma is important, but other factors might be even more so:

  4. This is an interesting article to find. I have been unemployed for one month. I have applied for 40 jobs so far. Most have not got back to me. Two have interviewed me. During this time, I have felt ashamed, useless, hopeless. I have felt like I am trapped and cannot see a way out. I have wondered what good I am to anyone. :/

    I have studied the psychological effects of unemployment during my degree. I suppose I just didn't expect to feel so useless and so without hope so early on. :(

  5. Most people I know that wasn't able to acquire an income protection cover before being unemployed are the ones at risk of being suicidal. Financial instability is the main issue why unemployed people what to commit suicide.