The foreclosure crisis increasingly looks like a public health crisis, too. Researchers have connected foreclosures to depression, stress-related illnesses and spikes in emergency room visits. Last week, The Washington Post's Dina elBoghdaddy wrote that it even appears foreclosures may raise the blood pressure of neighbors who simply live near these repossessed homes.
Worse yet: A new study in the American Journal of Public Health argues that foreclosures -- independent of other economic consequences of the financial crisis -- may have contributed to the rise in suicides since 2005. Data suggests, however, that this has been the case only among the age groups for whom the stakes of foreclosure have been arguably the highest.
Researchers Jason Houle at Dartmouth and Michael Light at Purdue looked at state-level suicide rates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, alongside proprietary foreclosure data from RealtyTrac in all 50 states and the District of Columbia between 2005 and 2010. Their analysis compared the two datasets within each state across time, and across each state at fixed moments, controlling for variables captured in data from the American Community Survey (including demographics, unemployment and poverty rates, divorce rates and population density).
Previous research suggests that suicide rates tend to rise during economic downturns. And in 2009, the number of suicides in the United States passed the number of deaths by traffic crashes, a trend that's been accompanied by a particularly worrisome spike in suicides by the middle-aged. Still, no one had looked at the unique role of foreclosures in this latest recession and their potential contribution to suicides.
Houle and Light parsed the foreclosure data into two groups, looking at homes in any state of foreclosure and those in real-estate-owned foreclosures (the subset of homes that have already been repossessed by the lender). The latter group implies a higher level of housing distress. And, in fact, real-estate-owned foreclosure rates were found to most strongly correlate with suicide rates among the middle-aged.
For people age 46 to 64, the researchers found that a 5 percentage-point increase in real-estate-owned foreclosures from 2005 to 2010 within a state was associated with a 25 percent increase in the suicide rate. That's the equivalent of an increase from 18.5 deaths to 23 deaths per 100,000 residents. They found a similar but less dramatic effect for people age 30 to 45:
Meanwhile, there was no clear association between foreclosures and suicide among the elderly or younger adults. Why the significant effect for adults in between those groups, and for those age 46 to 64 in particular?
Middle-aged adults have the highest proportion of homeowners relative to other age groups and have a higher risk of home foreclosure than do other age groups. In addition to facing a greater risk of home foreclosure, this group also has the most to lose — losing key assets and wealth close to retirement age is likely to have a profound effect on the mental health and well-being of middle-aged individuals.