The dramatic murder-suicides last month involving a family in Ohio and another in California might be the tip of a deadly domestic-violence iceberg, a sociologist says.
The topic, of course, is highly complex. In a nutshell, however, several studies have found that suicides as well as domestic violence spike for the unemployed. While family murder-suicides are relatively uncommon, such events can be tied to poor economic situations such as the current recession, said Sampson Blair, a sociologist at University of Buffalo.
"I expect an increase in such incidents over the next few years because economic strain on families provokes depression and desperation," Blair said.
Blair is not alone in anticipating a rise in suicide and deadly domestic violence.
Blair cited a 2003 study in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, which found that "being unemployed was associated with a twofold to threefold increased relative risk of death by suicide, compared with being employed." The study's researchers noted, however, that about half the association they found "might be attributable to confounding by mental illness."
A 1998 study in the British Medical Journal found "the link between suicide and unemployment is more powerful that other socio-economic measures."
And as we all know, the current economic downturn is unlike anything seen in decades, with pressures on some people coming from all angles at once.
"From the individual's point of view, the loss of a job is certainly bad, but it can become much, much worse when it coincides with a loss of savings and investments, the loss of the family home (through foreclosure, for instance), and dismal prospects for finding another job soon," Blair said.
In the California case last month, Ervin Lupoe killed his wife and five children. It was the fifth mass death of a family by murder or suicide in a year just in Southern California. Lupoe left a suicide note describing the "horrendous ordeal" he and his wife went through after both being fired from their jobs.
(In the Ohio case, Mark Meeks had lost his job but recently gotten it back, before shooting his wife, his two small children, and himself. Police are not, however, leaning toward finance as being the main reason for the apparent murder-suicide.)
While several studies have linked unemployment to suicides, it's not clear that overall terrible economic times cause spikes in the suicide rate.
In fact one researcher, Loren Coleman, an expert on suicides and author of "The Copycat Effect" (Pocket, 2004), argues that suicides actually decrease during times of social and economic stress: "Historical studies conducted by sociologist Steven Stack and others have discovered a noticeable dip in suicides and related violent events when there is society-wide anguish, for example, in times of massive immediate grieving in periods of wars and economic depressions."
Suicide is more common than most people think, though. Each day about 85 U.S. residents die by suicide, or roughly 30,000 a year. Hundreds of thousands more try it every year, according to researchers at Temple University in Philadelphia. Suicide is the ninth leading cause of death in the United States, higher on the list than homicide. Men are more prone to suicide than women. (Women are three times more likely to report attempting suicide than men, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Men apparently succeed more often, as they are four times more likely to actually die from suicide.)
The reasons are myriad and certainly go beyond mere economic misfortune.
A recent study led by Temple University sociology professor Matt Wray found Las Vegas residents are much more likely to commit suicide than people living elsewhere in the country. Among the reasons speculated by Wray and his colleagues in the November online version of the journal Social Science and Medicine: gambler's despair, of course. But short-term economic woe is probably not the only mechanism at work in Sin City.
"Las Vegas is also one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the U.S., a pattern of growth that may amplify social isolation, fragmentation and low social cohesion, all of which have long been identified as correlates of suicide," Wray said.
Domestic violence linked to suicide
Economic downturns are also known to fuel domestic violence.
"Economic stresses often lead to more frequent abuse, more violent abuse, and more dangerous abuse when domestic violence already exists," wrote Mary R. Lauby, executive director of Jane Doe Inc., and Sue Else, president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, in a December op-ed piece for The Boston Globe. "Rhode Island, for example, has recently seen a 25 percent increase in felony-level domestic violence crimes."
There is also a known link between suicide and domestic violence.
In a small study of 48 people (nearly all women) killed by their spouses or former spouses in one Ohio county over a decade, 41 percent of the perpetrators had previously threatened to commit suicide.
A 2003 study led by Jacquelyn Campbell at the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing found that unemployment is the single strongest predictor in cases where men murder their wives. An abuser's lack of a job increased the risk of femicide fourfold, Campbell's team reported in the American Journal of Public Health.
All this information could be used to prevent domestic violence, Campbell argued at the time.
"In the United States, women are killed by intimate partners more often than by any other type of perpetrator, with the majority of these murders involving prior physical abuse," she said. "Determining key risk factors, over and above a history of domestic violence, that contribute to the abuse that escalates to murder will help us identify and intervene with battered women who are most at risk."
Robert Roy Britt is the Editorial Director of Imaginova. In this column, The Water Cooler, he takes a daily look at what people are talking about in the world of science and beyond.
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Robert is an independent health and science journalist and writer based in Phoenix, Arizona. He is a former editor-in-chief of Live Science with over 20 years of experience as a reporter and editor. He has worked on websites such as Space.com and Tom's Guide, and is a contributor on Medium, covering how we age and how to optimize the mind and body through time. He has a journalism degree from Humboldt State University in California.