ATLANTA - More Americans are dying by suicide now than at any point in the last century, and a new study suggests that slightly raising the minimum wage could potentially counteract this troubling trend.
Raising the minimum wage by $1 was found to decrease the suicide rate by between 3.5 and 5.9 percent among adults aged 18-64 with a high school education or less, according to a study published Tuesday in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
Over the course of a 15-year study period, researchers estimated that a $1 increase to the current state minimum wage could have prevented 27,550 suicide deaths, while a $2 increase could have prevented 57,350 suicide deaths.
In 2017, there were more than 47,100 preventable suicide deaths in the U.S., and these accounted for a total of 19 percent of all deaths among adults aged 18-24, and 11 percent among adults aged 25-40.
Deaths by suicide have been rising dramatically in recent years — suicide rates jumped more than 30 percent in half of US states between 1999 and 2017, which contributed to an overall decline in the U.S. life expectancy.
Life expectancy of the wealthiest 20 percent of Americans has increased over the last thirty years, life expectancy of the middle 60 percent has stayed relatively stagnant, and life expectancy for the poorest 20 percent of Americans has decreased.
The suicide rate has historically impacted poorer citizens more than wealthier Americans. The poorest populations have continued to experience the greatest losses as the number of annual suicide deaths has climbed.
Researchers at Emory University knew that social welfare policies such as minimum wage can affect people’s health and that suicide is often associated with financial stressors, so they set out to estimate the potential strength of minimum wage increases to lower the rate of suicide deaths among poor Americans.
The research team analyzed monthly data from all 50 states and Washington, D.C. between 1990 and 2015. They looked at fluctuations in state minimum wages and federal minimum wage across time and compared these fluctuations to suicide rates in two populations — adults with a high school diploma or less, and adults with a college degree or higher.
From 1990 to 2015, there were 399,206 suicides among people who had a high school diploma or less, compared to 140,176 among people who had a college degree or higher.
The study’s authors estimated that every dollar increase in the minimum wage among adults 18-64 years with less than a high school diploma translates to about a six percent reduction in the total number of suicides. When they adjusted this estimate to control for state-specific time-varying economic variables, they estimated a 3.5 percent reduction in the suicide rate for every dollar in state minimum wage.
For adults with a college degree or higher, increases in the minimum wage were found to have no effect on the suicide rate, and this suggests that minimum wage increases may also help reduce the disparities in mental health and death rates between different socioeconomic groups.
Suicide and depression disproportionately affect those with lower levels of education and lower incomes, and groups with lower education are also more likely to be unemployed. The study’s authors point to prior studies that have linked periods of unemployment to increases in adverse mental health outcomes including depression and suicide.
“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 study’s authors wrote.
A Sept. 2019 report from the Senate’s Joint Economic Committee examined the long-term trends in deaths of despair among American adults and highlighted the disturbing upward trend in suicide deaths in recent years. The report analyzed an uptick in all “deaths of despair,” which also includes deaths by drug and alcohol poisoning, and alcoholic liver disease and cirrhosis.
“Mortality from deaths of despair far surpasses anything seen in America since the dawn of the 20th century... The recent increase has primarily been driven by an unprecedented epidemic of drug overdoses, but even excluding those deaths, the combined mortality rate from suicides and alcohol-related deaths is higher than at any point in more than 100 years.”
“Suicides have not been so common since 1938,” the report added.
In 1938, the US was a decade into The Great Depression.
The Sept. report, like the recent study, highlighted the significance of economic distress in contributing to adverse health outcomes, and especially suicide, for poorer Americans.
In analyzing the recent decrease in American life expectancy, the Senate report noted the greatest changes in the Rust Belt — including the Ohio Valley, Appalachia and upper New England — where resource-based economies once boomed but began to taper off in the 1970s.
"The largest relative increases in midlife mortality occurred among adults with less education and in rural areas or other settings with evidence of economic distress or diminished social capital," the report’s authors noted.
Though raising the minimum wage could be an effective countermeasure to combat rising suicide rates in the US, the most recent study’s authors argue that it isn’t enough.
“While the minimum wage can serve as a population health intervention,” the study’s authors wrote. “It is important for society to provide other buffers between financial status and health, so that low education and economic insecurity do not increase the risk of mental illness and death.”
If you or a loved one is feeling distressed, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The crisis center provides free and confidential emotional support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to civilians and veterans. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Or text to 741-741.
CLICK HERE for the warning signs and risk factors of suicide. Call 1-800-273-TALK for free and confidential emotional support.
This story was reported from Los Angeles.