Social and economic factors and deaths by suicide

There is growing evidence that social factors, including education, employment status, income level and wealth, play an important role in determining the risk of suicide in high income countries (Blakely et al, 2003).

A combination of factors contribute to someone considering suicide. Although some social factors may be associated with an increased risk of suicide, they cannot be considered a direct cause.

Understanding how social factors affect the risk of suicide is important to better inform strategies to reduce suicide in Australia and may help in the planning of more effective evidence-based prevention and intervention programs.

Using linked data from the Multi-Agency Data Integration Project (MADIP), the AIHW has conducted two studies and a further study in collaboration with the Australian National University’s Centre for Social Research and Methods to identify social and economic characteristics associated with greater risk of death by suicide. While these pieces of work are distinct, together they add to the growing understanding of population-level influences on suicide deaths in Australia.

The MADIP is a partnership among Australian Government agencies to link administrative and survey data. These studies used de-identified Australian Census of Population and Housing (2011) data linked with 7 years of Death Registrations (2011 to 2017). For more detailed information on the MADIP data asset, data linkage and analytical methods used, see Technical notes.

Data linkage combines information from multiple sources, while preserving privacy. All linked data sets used for analysis at the AIHW comply with legislative and regulatory standards, are securely stored and accessed, and meet ethical standards and community expectations. Protocols are in place to prevent privacy breaches or the unauthorised identification of individuals, and to ensure data security and restricted access to information.

The initial analysis, Educational attainment, employment and deaths by suicide, found that the cumulative risk of suicide in Australia is higher in those with fewer years of education and is lower among those who are employed. These results have been reported previously on Suicide and self-harm monitoring.

Additional analysis, Regression risk models for selected census variables, developed statistical regression models to examine the association between 10 identified predictive social and economic factors from the 2011 Census and deaths by suicide in Australia. The difference between this approach and the previous cumulative risk analysis, is that regression allows for adjustment for the various risk factors for suicide, which may make estimates more precise.

The multivariate (multiple variables) regression model showed that the strongest associations with deaths by suicide (relative to respective reference groups, and after adjusting for other variables in the model) included:

  • being male (HR = 3.12; 95% CI 2.93 to 3.32)
  • being widowed, divorced or separated (HR = 1.95; 95% CI 1.79 to 2.12)
  • being in a lone person household (HR = 1.72; 95% CI 1.57 to 1.87)
  • being unemployed (HR = 1.75; 95% CI 1.55 to 1.99) or not in the labour force (HR = 1.80; 95% CI 1.64 to 1.99)

Results for other variables are reported on Regression risk models for selected census variables.

In further analysis, Social and economic factors associated with suicide in Australia: a focus on individual income reported here for the first time, a longitudinal approach was taken, which enabled the investigation of changes to individuals’ income and employment status across time. It also examined the absolute risk, as well as relative odds of dying by suicide.

The longitudinal multivariate regression model confirmed findings from the Regression risk models for selected census variables study and produced additional insights into associations between deaths by suicide, income and income uncertainty including:

  • those with higher income uncertainty had higher odds of suicide death relative to those with lower income uncertainty. Relative to those in the lowest income uncertainty quintile, the odds of dying by suicide increased by 1.91 (95% CI 0.29 to 0.44) for those in the highest income uncertainty quintile.
  • people who experienced longer periods of unemployment had higher odds of suicide death. Relative to those with no periods of unemployment, the odds of dying by suicide increase by 1.57 (95% CI 1.21-2.05) for those unemployed for 2 years; 1.75 (95%CI 1.36-2.26) for those unemployed for 3 years; 2.03 (95% CI 1.61-2.57) for those unemployed for 4 years; and 1.96 (95% CI 1.61-2.57) for those unemployed for 5 years.

Additional results are reported on Longitudinal analysis of income uncertainty and the full report can be found on Releases.