The City You Live In May Affect Your Risk of Suicide

RESEARCH :  Jun. 17, 2015 HEALTH

Ryan Holeywell | June 17, 2015 New research reveals that the socioeconomics of cities may play a role in determining suicide risk

Black and white photo of a man waiting for a train

New research reveals that the socioeconomics of cities may play a role in determining suicide risk

Living in certain types of cities increases adults' risk of suicide, according to a new study published by Justin Denney of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

The report lends credence to the idea that suicide, while heavily influenced by an individual's circumstances, is also linked to external factors that are often far beyond their control.

"We were very interested in looking at this core, sociological idea that how well we live, how long we live, and what we die from is really shaped by sometimes broad, external forces," Denney said.

His research found that adults who live in cities that are socioeconomically disadvantaged have a greater risk of death by suicide than adults in cities with lower levels of poverty and unemployment.

The findings are particularly noteworthy because that trend exists even when researchers controlled for an individual's own economic situation.

In other words, even if you're employed with a well-paying job, you may have a higher risk of suicide, simply because your city at-large has higher levels of poverty and unemployment.

The study also found that residing in a city with a smaller percentage of people living with family members increases the risk of suicide. That trend also existed even when controlling for individuals' own living situations.

The findings support the notion that suicide is an "inherently social act" that can't be explained solely by individual characteristics alone, Denney wrote along with co-authors Tim Wadsworth, Richard Rogers and Fred Pampel - all sociologists at the University of Colorado - Boulder.

Their findings appeared in the June issue of Social Science Quarterly.

The study was based on survey data on nearly 1 million Americans compiled by the National Institutes of Health from 1986 to 2003. Death records indicate about 1,300 of those people went on to commit suicide. Researchers combined those data sets, along with information about where those individuals lived.

In cities where 25 percent or less of the population lived with family members, adults were more than twice as likely to die by suicide compared to adults in cities where at least 81 percent of residents lived with family.

Researchers speculate that individuals living with family members are less likely to commit suicide because of the social support those relatives provide, as well as a sense of familial obligation they feel toward their kin.

But they think those effects exist on a broader level - regardless of whether an individual lives with family - because of a greater sense of social solidarity in cities with larger numbers of families living together.

Meanwhile, as factors like unemployment and poverty increase in a city, so too do feelings of isolation and despair - regardless of an individual's own circumstances.

Denney said the results underscore the importance of taking a broader view of how to approach mental health.

"There's a lot of good work being done that treats the individual from a psychological standpoint," he said. "But the broader message I want to get across is that's good, but we're kind of putting a Band-Aid across a larger, seeping wound. And that wound in inequality."

"Very few of us have the means to pick up and leave to go to a city that ranks low on poverty and unemployment," he continued. "If there is economic inequality, and we all work to do something about it, it benefits all of us."

Ryan Holeywell
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