Raising the minimum wage could result in fewer suicides, a new study suggests.
A study published Tuesday in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health examined the link between minimum wage increases and suicide rates among various groups across the U.S., between 1990 and 2015.
For every dollar added to the minimum wage, suicide rates among people with a high school education or less dropped by 3.4 to 5.9 per cent, the authors found.
The effects were more pronounced during periods of high unemployment.
“There’s really two main findings. The first one is that when minimum wages increased, suicide rates went down,” says John Kaufman, a study author and a doctoral student in epidemiology at Emory University in Atlanta.
The second finding was that minimum wage increases can provide a “protective effect” against periods of unemployment, he says.
“When unemployment goes up, suicide rates might not go up if the minimum wage is increased enough.”
The researchers estimate that over the period they studied, a $1 increase in the prevailing state minimum wages could have prevented 27,550 suicides among people with a high school education or lower.
There was no reduction in suicide rates among adults who had a college degree. People with this kind of education would be less likely to work at lower-wage jobs, Kaufman says, and so would be less affected by changes in the minimum wage.
This study isn’t the first to link minimum wage to suicide rates. Another study in 2019 found that a $1 increase in the minimum wage was associated with a 1.9-per cent decrease in overall state suicide rates in the U.S.
Other research has linked economic distress or poverty to increased mental health problems, as well as what are often termed “deaths of despair”: deaths caused by suicide, drug overdose or alcohol-related illness.
In the U.S., these have had a big impact: they’re often blamed for the recent fall in life expectancy.
“I think in general, we do know that poor mental health is strongly correlated with poverty,” says Evelyn Forget, a professor in community health sciences at the University of Manitoba, who has studied the impacts of basic income programs.
“The lower your income, the much more likely you are to suffer from depression, from anxiety, from all kinds of mental health challenges.”
Forget says that some research has looked at the effect of unemployment on men’s mental health in particular.
“The ability to care for oneself and one’s family and to provide economically is particularly challenging for young men who don’t have the same opportunities,” Forget said, “or don’t imagine they have the same opportunities that they might have had in different periods of history or under a different set of economic factors.”
“If you’re concerned about your well-being every single day and for your future, you are likely struggling emotionally and struggling with trying to keep a positive outlook about life,” said Camille Quenneville, CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario division.
Canada’s suicide rate has decreased slightly since 2000, from 11.7 per 100,000 population to 10.3 per 100,000 population in 2018, according to Statistics Canada.
While Forget expects that minimum wage changes would also affect suicide rates in Canada, she thinks the effects would be much less because of Canada’s social safety net, which includes medical care.
“We have a social safety net that generally functions better than that currently in existence in the U.S.,” Forget said, “so I think that certainly unemployment doesn’t have the same devastating effect that it might have in the U.S.”
Quenneville finds the study’s link between minimum wage and suicide “alarming” and hopes that policymakers take notice. When discussing minimum wage, mental health should “absolutely” be a consideration, she says.
“It really is about all kinds of factors that create good mental health,” she says, and she doesn’t think the issue can be considered in isolation.
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.
The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.