Rising unemployment rates seem to trigger more suicides and murders, U.S. and European investigators reported Tuesday in The Lancet. But government initiatives designed to keep people on the job or get people back to work can help, they say.

Dr. David Stuckler, University of Oxford, UK, and colleagues looked at how economic changes have affected death rates in 26 European Union (EU) countries over the past three decades, and identified how governments might reduce the harmful effects of economic downturns.

They found that for every 1 percent increase in unemployment, there was roughly a 0.8 percent rise in suicide rates in people younger than age 65. This translates into between 60 and 550 extra suicides per year across the EU in times of economic crisis.

Murder rates also rose 0.8 percent for every 1 percent increase in unemployment — or between 3 and 80 potential excess homicide deaths across Europe.

Both these effects were seen mostly in working-age people.

Stuckler and associates also found that if unemployment rose by more than 3 percent, suicide rates for those younger than 65 rose by 4.5 percent (250 to 3220 potential excess deaths EU-wide) and deaths from alcohol abuse rose by 28 percent (1550 to 5490 potential excess deaths across the EU).

But government intervention can help. "Every $10 per person increased investment in active labor market programs reduced the effect of unemployment on suicides by 0.038 percent," the researchers report.

"We observed that social spending on active labor market program ... mitigated the effect of unemployment on death rates from suicides, creating a specific opportunity for stimulus packages to align labor market investments with health promotion," they note.

"Governments might be able to protect their populations, specifically by budgeting for measures that keep people employed, helping those who lose their jobs cope with the negative effects of unemployment, and enabling unemployed people to regain work quickly," the add.

In a commentary published with the study, Dr. Andreas Lundin and Dr. Tomas Hemmingsson, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden, write: "When the social security system is less extensive, unemployment is a more probable mediator between mental illness and suicide."

"Without a moderating effect of unemployment benefits, an increase in suicide rates following increased unemployment rates is, as suggested by Stuckler and colleagues, more plausible," the authors point out.

SOURCE: The Lancet, July 8, 2009.