Washington and the fiscal cliff: leaders or lemmings?

by Thomas Ellis, PsyD, ABPP on December 7, 2012 · 1 comment

in suicide

Perhaps the commonest observation about the 2012 election was that it painted a picture of “a nation divided,” red in the middle and blue around the edges. But there’s at least one sentiment that unites us all: relief that it’s over. One more attack ad might have been just too much to bear.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is, as we put the drama behind us, we now face the suspense of the “fiscal cliff.” Unless you’ve been without television or Internet access for the past several months, you know that the fiscal cliff refers to the calamity we face at the end of the year (that’s this year), when terms of the Budget Control Act of 2011 are scheduled to go into effect. At midnight, as we ring in the New Year, an assortment of tax reductions will end and more than 1,000 government programs, including the defense budget and Medicare, will be automatically cut by more than $800 billion. Economists tell us that this almost certainly will wipe out the economic gains of the past few years and drag the economy back down into recession and higher unemployment.

Why is a mental health professional writing about this in a forum devoted to promoting human well-being? Take a look at the chart below, from a recent issue of The Lancet.










It shows how the steady increases in U.S. suicide rates in recent years have tracked with the struggles of the U.S. economy, the unemployment rate in particular. According to this analysis, during the recession, 4,750 people lost their lives to suicide who might have survived in better economic times. This is not a unique observation; for example, the suicide rate in Greece has risen more than 60% since the onset of the economic crisis in 2007.

This makes complete sense from a psychological standpoint. Suicide occurs when people with vulnerabilities, such as depression, schizophrenia and certain personality traits, encounter stressful situations that push them beyond what they are able to manage. Unemployment is one example; equally pertinent to recent struggles in the U.S. is the mortgage crisis, in which hundreds of thousands of people lost their homes to foreclosure. Divorce and addictions, both suicide risk factors, also worsen during hard economic times.

So, it is not an overstatement to state that lives depend on resolving the fiscal cliff dilemma.

Of course, we might reassure ourselves, “With stakes so high they’re bound to figure something out at the last minute.” But this once safe assumption might not be consistent with a new normal in Washington; for this election has left us with essentially the same Congress that not long ago stalled so long on increasing the debt ceiling that Standard and Poor’s actually lowered the credit rating of the U.S. Government, an unprecedented event that most had considered unimaginable.

It is time to tell our elected officials that their responsibilities regarding the fiscal cliff extend beyond any partisan political agenda or message that they may want to send to their respective bases. Lives literally hang in the balance, and the fiscal cliff is not a problem that mental health professionals are in a position to treat.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Barbara, RN December 16, 2012 at 2:36 pm

This seems to be just another example of how cut off our elected officials are from the realities of their constituencies. Some more so than others. In this case we could e-mail or call our respective congressmen about the urgent need to compromise and that this is what they were elected to do. And as we wait, we should be aware of others around us who may be in distress and reach out in some manner to assist them.

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