PRESPECTIVE: TO BE OR NOT TO BE – Why rich societies are more suicide-prone

PRESPECTIVE: TO BE OR NOT TO BE – Why rich societies are more suicide-prone – running after money and compromising ‘the cause’ ?!!


To be or not to be - that is how history repeats itself ?!!

From The Telegraph
By Ashok Sanjay Guha


In the folklore of economics, high and equitably distributed income is regarded as virtually synonymous with well-being. Apparently contrary to this view, however, is a striking but little-known piece of evidence: there is a strong and highly significant positive correlation between per capita incomes and national suicide rates.

The paradox is compounded by a strong negative correlation between suicide rates and Gini coefficients (the standard measure of income inequality in any society), so that any explanation of the income-suicide link in terms of income inequality can be ruled out. The richer your country, the higher the probability of your committing suicide; and the more egalitarian your society, the likelier are you to kill yourself.

To confound the confusion still further, suicide data within a given society follow the expected pattern: the suicide rate of the poor exceeds that of the rich. The micro-behaviour of the suicide rate is in conflict with its macro-incidence.

Other stylized facts about suicidal behaviour indicate that it is legitimate to view suicide as a social phenomenon rather than a purely individual aberration. National suicide rates have a high degree of stability over time, though they may indeed be affected by social catastrophes like the economic collapse of Eastern Europe and Russia in the Nineties and the AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa. Moreover, there are enormous systematic differences in these national rates, differences so vast that they cannot possibly be explained away by any conceivable reporting error.

Finally, there is some evidence that suicide rates worldwide have been rising gradually, though very slowly, over time. For the species as a whole, increase in prosperity does not seem to have reduced our propensity for self-slaughter.

How does one account for these troubling features of one of the major perennial problems of the human condition? A clue to an answer lies undoubtedly in Émile Durkheim’s well-known work on the sociology of suicide — a work that helps to widen the economist’s generally narrow view of the determinants of human welfare.

From the economist’s perspective, the debate on whether economic growth really promotes welfare dates back to the Easterlin paradox. In the 1970s, Easterlin showed in a famous study that self-reported measures of happiness are uncorrelated with per capita incomes across countries. While some economists have verified empirically that measures of ‘social capital’ (an index of the intensity of interaction within a society) appear to be negatively correlated with suicide rates, indicating the importance of social integration, economists more generally tend to be interested in the effects of income on measures of happiness and well-being.

There is a general consensus that suicide is triggered off by a shock. A random and unexpected mischance, economic or emotional, opens up a present and a future that the individual finds too painful to contemplate. Whether the consequence is suicide or not depends however on the shock-absorbers that his environment provides. Economic shocks can be tided over given a high enough asset level or access to adequate credit. Emotional shocks on the other hand can be moderated only by a social support structure: economic support is no substitute.

The rich in all societies and most members of rich societies have adequate assets to act as a buffer against economic trauma; they can also mobilize credit against the security of these assets. Rich country governments also offer their citizens a pervasive safety net of social security. However, their social support structures are eroded by a variety of factors. The high personal value of time is a strong disincentive to the cultivation or even the maintenance of social relationships.

The deeper penetration of the market provides services to individuals (such as individualized entertainment) which, in poor countries, are available only as public goods and require therefore the formation of collective groups for their provision. Higher mobility, both occupational and geographical, leaves less time for social relationships to develop. The labour market expands and penetrates the family, leading first to the decay of the extended family and then to the dramatic implosion of the nuclear family.

Rich societies are, in general, more anonymous and impersonal: technological changes that work in the opposite direction (such as improvements in communication technology) act only as minor palliatives to this broad trend.

Those in poor countries have more social connectedness and therefore better support against emotional trauma. A more leisurely lifestyle leaves more opportunity for tea and gossip, for the formation and cementing of personal relationships. Lower mobility makes possible the deepening of these relationships into powerful buffers against external shocks. Marriages and families are more stable. Individuals are rarely isolated and solitary; more likely they are cocooned in a social matrix which, while it restricts their freedom, supports them in extremity. Further, the social support structure, the joint family, the clan or community often also provides a measure of credit in the event of economic shock (while wealth provides no protection against emotional stress). Also, while poor countries have fewer assets and less access to formal credit, they tend, for this very reason, to save at higher rates as a precaution against emergencies.

Of course, social connectedness is also a matter of personal choice. However, one’s choices are constrained by the social environment in crucial ways. Investing much time on social relationships is futile in a society where no one else has time to spare. Organizing groups for collective entertainment is difficult when everyone has easy access to personalized pastimes. Deliberate choice of a well-rooted, immobile lifestyle may not achieve much by way of social relationships (while missing out on economic opportunities) if one’s neighbours are always on the move. Our commitment to holy matrimony till death doth us part is weakened in a society where general marital instability ensures an abundance of alternative partners and where our spouses, too, enjoy a similar set of options. In short, there is an unstable dynamics about the growth or decay of social support systems.

Social support structures are ‘public goods’. Their benefits are not confined to single individuals, but extend to all the members of a society. On the other hand, they are specific to any society: the variation in the strength of social support between different countries is probably correlated to the differences in national suicide rates. Within any society, however, the differences in suicide between income classes are determined by differential access to private goods (like credit or wealth). Hence the poor in any country kill themselves at a higher rate than the rich in the same country.

Finally, there is little doubt that the growth of the market globally has been eroding social support structures everywhere: the slow secular increase in suicide rates worldwide is, therefore, no mystery.

(The author is professor at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University)


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