Headlines See a Pattern of Banker Suicides. The Data Don't

Does the global banking industry really have a mental health crisis on its hands? For all the recent concern in the media about a series of suicides in the financial industry, let’s consider one basic fact: It’s hard to get accurate, reliable, and trustworthy data to make any broad generalizations about this trend. If any expert on cable TV or quoted in the press tells you otherwise, he or she is misinformed.

A basic search of suicide rates by profession will easily turn up a lot of results without anything consistent revealed. Business Insider sifted through U.S. Centers for Disease Control data to find 19 jobs with the highest suicide rates, and the financial industry is ranked No. 5 behind marine engineers, physicians, dentists, and veterinarians. There’s a problem with these data: They are limited to “11 million death certificates dated from 1984 to 1998 … white men in occupations with a sample size greater than 1,000 deaths.” In addition to being very specific sample data, they are also three decades old—even the link to the centers’ source data is broken. Another set of data compiled by the website StraightDope.com gives the top 10 professions at risk for suicide without ranking finance, while Health.com’s data put finance on its suicide-by-industry top 10 list.

Media coverage of suicides among white-collar professionals in general can also be a little fickle. Before the spate of news stories about bankers, there were basically identical storylines about lawyers. Data compiled by the American Bar Association says lawyers are the fourth most suicidal profession, putting dentists at the top.

The only thing consistent is the amount of inconsistent information out there. Perhaps the best explanation comes from the American Psychological Association, which points to a morbid competition among professions: “Various occupational groups have called the National Center for Health Statistics, each to confirm that their occupation has the highest rates of suicide.” And yet the APA finds no clear statistical evidence linking suicide to occupation, recognizes no national data set on the question, and expresses doubts that occupation can serve as a useful predictor of suicide or “explain much about why the person commits suicide.”

The available literature on suicide by profession is not great—with data that vary by methodology and geography, according to APA’s findings—but the most reliable meta-analysis puts the job of financial manager “right in the middle,” says Christine Moutier, chief medical officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “Smack dab, kind of average.”

Moutier faults journalists for irresponsibly speculating about apparent suicide clusters, since even publicizing the idea can increase the number of suicides in a group. “It could be harmful in the sense that there is a real phenomenon such as suicide contagion—1 percent to 5 percent of total suicides,” she says. “Isn’t a huge proportion, but it’s a number of deaths that are actually attributed to a cluster effect.” The phenomenon is more dangerous when reporting on school suicides, since “youth are more susceptible to contagion than adults.”

Bottom line: Drawing big lessons from what might look like a pattern of recent banker suicides is a fool’s errand. Correlation does not imply causation, as they say, and there’s no statistical support that these suicides in finance add up to anything more than isolated personal tragedies.

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