UC Berkeley study finds job loss heightens risk of suicide, overdose

General Motors Car Factory
General Motors/Creative Commons
A UC Berkeley study of United Auto Workers union members leaving their jobs at General Motors between 1970 and 1994 revealed that deaths by overdose or suicide were 16 times more common among unemployed workers than employed workers. (Photo by General Motors under CC BY 3.0)

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Losing a job may lead to increased rates of suicide and fatal drug overdose, according to a UC Berkeley-led study of autoworkers in Michigan.

Published in July, the research shows autoworkers who are no longer employed in their former jobs have a higher risk of suicide or overdose compared to active employees. This risk is doubled for those who became unemployed before retirement age, according to lead author and UC Berkeley School of Public Health professor Ellen Eisen.

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that there are hazards related to the workplace that are not physical hazards,” said study co-author and Stanford University medical student Holly Elser. “Some of that has to do with job insecurity or precarity.”

The study focused on Michigan workers at General Motors represented by the United Auto Workers union. The data included both voluntary and involuntary exits from the company from 1970 to 1994.

Among the almost 27,000 employees who left the company in those years, 257 died by suicide or overdose. These causes were found to be over 16 times more common among unemployed workers than employed workers.

Of these deaths, 236 took place soon after employees left their jobs, with almost half of the deaths occurring within the next five years.

“Your material circumstances could have such a profound impact on your mental health,” Elser said. “You have to take a second to think about what that means when you see those results come to bear.”

Eisen said these trends would likely be applicable to industrial workers at large, particularly in industries dealing with heavy job loss.

These results may also be especially pertinent in light of the mass unemployment sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Eisen.

“As a consequence of COVID not having been controlled well, there has been a lot of unemployment in the country and a lot of people are hurting from the financial stress,” Eisen said. “We have to be concerned that there will be mental health consequences of all that job loss.”

According to Eisen, however, the widespread nature may in fact dull these risks as it is potentially less traumatic to lose one’s job at a time when many others are going through the same experience.

Elser emphasized the study’s importance in analyzing both past and present job insecurity in a time of increasing precarity in the workplace.

“It forces us to look forward and think about what job insecurity means for the present day and future working population,” Elser said. “But it also lets us look back at how changes in the once thriving Detroit auto industry affected the people who had those jobs.”

Contact Claire Daly at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @DalyClaire13.