New(spaper) Evidence on the Relationship between Business Cycles and Suicides

Christoph Kronenberg¹ (with Anne Günnel²)

1 CINCH; University of Duisburg-Essen

2 Leibniz Science Campus Ruhr; University of Duisburg-Essen


Suicides hurt families and the economy with an annual cost of $69 billion in the USA. The literature typically finds that suicides are countercyclical in contrast to most other health outcomes. Thus, if the economy improves, the number of suicides tend to go up and vice versa. If this was a causal finding, governments should heavily invest into suicide prevention during economic booms and reduce that investment during recessions. However, the majority of the empirical evidence is based on association studies from the 20th and 21st century. This is the first work to extend this literature to the 19th century. Shifting the time horizon limits the possible confounding effects of health insurance, labor market protections and mental health care on the relationship between the state of the economy and suicides, as they were either not existent or in their infancy. Furthermore, regular business cycle movements are somewhat predictable by individuals. We therefore use the value of gold and silver discoveries as an economic shock, while previous works used GDP or the unemployment rate to proxy business cycles.

Given that no suicide records exist for the 19th century, we build an index of newspaper suicide mentions by dividing the number of suicide mentions through the total number of newspaper pages available for a given year and state.

Preliminary results confirm previous findings that suicides are countercyclical. Gold discoveries did not universally lead to wealth and thus provide an opportunity to explore the effect of an economic shock on its winners and losers. Therefore, future steps include looking at Chinese, Mexican and Native American miners who were met with varying degrees of animosity. Exploring the effect on them is an avenue to study the effect heterogeneity of gold discoveries on suicides.