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AP's 'fact-check' ignores decades of research to discredit Trump on link between suicides and recessions

The CDC has warned the "suicide rate rises and falls in connection with the economy"

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The Associated Press ignored decades of research showing a close link between suicides and economic recessions in a "fact-check" the news agency published on Tuesday that attempted to discredit President Donald Trump for claiming an economic downturn caused by prolonged "lockdown" policies to battle the coronavirus could have serious public health consequences.

In its article, titled "Trump says suicides will increase 'by the thousands' if economy stays closed—experts say he's wrong," the AP argues "suicides tend to diminish in times of crisis as society pulls together."

The charge is misleading on several counts.

Trump said 'terrible economies,' not social distancing, will result in suicides

The AP's "fact-check" is built on a straw-man argument. President Trump did not say that continued social distancing efforts alone will drive a spike in suicides. He said that thousands may kill themselves if the U.S. were to plunge into a deep recession.

"People get tremendous anxiety and depression, and you have suicides over things like this when you have terrible economies. You have death. Probably and — I mean, definitely — would be in far greater numbers than the numbers that we're talking about with regard to the virus."

President Trump made the comment as a warning that an economic collapse also carries its own major public health risks that are worth considering when determining when and how to re-open the American economy.

The AP's 'expert' doesn't even agree with them

While the AP claims the "experts" it consulted said that President Trump is wrong on the impact of prolonged social distancing guidelines on mental health, the one specialist the news agency spoke with was actually hesitant to make a prediction.

"It is not a foregone conclusion that we will see increased suicide rates," said Dr. Christine Moutier of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention on the issue of whether quarantines themselves result in self-inflicted deaths. The link between suicide and economic depressions, which is what Trump was actually referring to, is far more clear. In fact, the AP buried in its own fact-check, as a passing reference, that suicides increased during the Great Depression.

Researchers say the 'suicide rate rises and falls in connection with the economy'

Decades of social research back President Trump's contention: When unemployment levels rise during economic recessions so do suicides. Several major studies have examined the relationship between the two and determined as such:

  • A 2011 study by the CDC concluded that the "overall suicide rate rises and falls in connection with the economy." In its research the CDC examined the relationship between business cycles and suicide rates since the 1920s and found that suicides "generally rose in recessions like the Great Depression (1929-1933), the end of the New Deal (1937-1938), the Oil Crisis (1973-1975), and the Double-Dip Recession (1980-1982) and fell in expansions like the WWII period (1939-1945) and the longest expansion period (1991-2001) in which the economy experienced fast growth and low unemployment."
  • A 2003 report published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found: "Being unemployed was associated with a twofold to threefold increased relative risk of death by suicide, compared with being employed. About half of this association might be attributable to confounding by mental illness."
  • A 2009 paper in the Journal of Economic Psychology examined the link between suicide and unemployment and determined the two were closely related in wealthy nations: "We support that higher income is associated with higher suicide rates. In particular, the evidence shows that the implied effect of unemployment on suicide rates is positive for countries with higher income."
Given the compelling social research — and with jobless claims soaring to the highest levels in history on Thursday while a fed official warns of an precedented 30% unemployment rate — the Trump administration is right to be concerned about the public health risks of the various responses to the COVID-19 pandemic it has at its disposal.
One last thing…
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