Sometimes seemingly small changes can have a huge impact. In a new observational study, researchers in the United States have found a link between a mere $1 increase in minimum hourly wage and decreased suicide rates.
While suicide rates are generally falling in the rest of the developed world, the US have seen a tragic uptick in this statistic. In this context, finding interventions that could turn this trend around is an important research task.
The new study suggests that raising the minimum wage in every US state by $1 between 1990 and 2015 could have prevented somewhere in the region of 27,550 suicides.
The findings apply to those with a high school education or less – not those with a college degree or higher – and the effect is most pronounced in times of high unemployment, the research indicates.
"Suicide is often associated with financial stressors such as job loss, debt or financial hardship, but less is known about how economic interventions such as minimum wage policies could ameliorate these risk factors," the researchers write in their paper.
To find out, the team crunched the numbers from all 50 states and Washington DC, examining suicide rates among 18 to 64-year-olds across every month between 1990 and 2015, and checking that against changes in minimum wage.
The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25, though it's higher in many states – 36 states matched the federal rate in 1990, but by 2015 this was down to 21. Over those 25 years, the study logged 478 changes in state minimum wages.
Based on those changes, the researchers estimate a 3.5-6 percent reduction in the suicide rate for every dollar increase in the minimum wage – that's for those with a high school education or less (a group that saw 399,206 suicides between 1990-2015), with higher drops likely during periods of high unemployment.
The team saw no statistical reduction in suicide rates based on minimum wage increases for those with a college degree or higher (in this group, 140,176 people took their own lives between 1990-2015).
"We observed no effect among adults with a college degree or more, suggesting that minimum wage increases may reduce disparities in mental health and mortality between socioeconomic groups," the study authors write.
This is an observational study, meaning the data presented are not enough to prove that higher wages would definitely cut suicide rates, but the observed link is a good indication that lessening economical stressors can have a positive impact on mental health.
Suicide is now one of the top 10 leading causes of death in the US, with an estimated 47,000 preventable suicides happening in 2017. These deaths are on the rise, and account for nearly 1 in 5 deaths among those aged 18-24.
To reverse that worrying trend, action is needed to protect the most vulnerable at the poorest levels of society – and increasing the minimum wage could be one effective way of doing that.
"Our findings are consistent with the notion that policies designed to improve the livelihoods of individuals with less education, who are more likely to work at lower wages and at higher risk for adverse mental health outcomes, can reduce the suicide risk in this group," the team concludes.
The research has been published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.
If this story has raised concerns or you need to talk to someone, here's a list where you may be able to find a crisis hotline in your country.