The study found that between 2008 and 2010, rates of suicide surged in the European Union, Canada and the United States. The increase was four times higher among men than women, according to the report published in the current issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry.
"There has been a substantial rise in suicides during the recession, greater than we would have anticipated based on previous trends," lead author Dr. Aaron Reeves, of Oxford University's department of sociology, said in a university news release.
In conducting the study, researchers from the University of Oxford and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine examined information on suicides from the World Health Organization. The data included 24 countries in the European Union as well as Canada and the United States.
The investigators found a reversal in the decline in suicides in the European Union that coincided with the beginning of the economic crisis in 2007. By 2009, suicides had increased by 6.5 percent.
Meanwhile, suicides in Canada rose by 4.5 percent between 2007 and 2010. In the United States there was an increase of 4.8 percent during this time period, the study found.
According to the study authors, these figures are "conservative" estimates. They said that the actual number of suicides since the recession hit are likely much greater than expected.
During a recession, some key risk factors for suicide may include job loss, home repossession and debt. Most suicides involve people with clinical depression, the report noted.
The researchers pointed out that prescription rates for antidepressants increased significantly in some countries during the recent recession. For example, in the United Kingdom, there was an 11 percent increase in such prescriptions between 2003 and 2007. By 2010, prescription rates for antidepressants rose 19 percent.
However, Reeves and colleagues explained that differences in suicide rates between countries affected by the same recession suggest that suicides during an economic slowdown are avoidable.
Countries that implement employment assistance programs may be able to reduce suicide risks, the researchers noted. They estimated that for every $100 per person spent on programs offering help to the unemployed, the risk of suicide falls by 0.4 percent.
"A critical question for policy and psychiatric practice is whether suicide rises are inevitable. This study shows that rising suicides have not been observed everywhere so while recessions will continue to hurt, they don't always cause self-harm," Reeves explained in the news release.
"A range of interventions, from return-to-work programs through to antidepressant prescriptions, may reduce the risk of suicide during future economic downturns," he concluded.
However, according to study co-author David Stuckler, "suicides are just the tip of the iceberg."
Stuckler, a professor from the University of Oxford, explained in the news release that "these data reveal a looming mental health crisis in Europe and North America. In these hard economic times, this research suggests it is critical to look for ways of protecting those who are likely to be hardest hit."
Although the study found increased suicide rates during the recent recession, it did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship.
The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health has more about suicide prevention.
SOURCE: University of Oxford, news release, June 11, 2014