Recession, suicide and violence

Richard Garside argues that it is too early to tell whether the economic depression in the UK will result in higher levels of violence. But the early signs on domestic and acquaintance violence don't look good.

Richard Garside
Wednesday, 18 September, 2013

Are recessions and economic shocks bad for your health?

This morning's Independent newspaper cites new research claiming that the global economic crisis has caused more than 5,000 additional suicides across Europe and North America. In the UK, the newspaper notes, there were at least 300 more suicides in 2009 - the first year of the banking crisis - than would have been expected in 'normal times'.

Recessions can also be a factor in rising levels of violence, though it is important to be clear what kinds of violence we are talking about.

Over the long-run 'overall' levels of violence measured by the British Crime Survey/Crime in England and Wales survey rose between 1981 and 1995, after which they fell. By 2012 violence levels were roughly back to where they had been in 1981.

That said, reference to 'overall' violence levels can be misleading. Indeed, talk of 'overall crime' is best reserved for crime involving overalls.

To get a clearer sense of what was really going on during that period, we need to look at the trends in different types of violence.

Between 1981 and 2012 'stranger violence' - in which the assailant was unknown by the victim - remained pretty constant. 'Acquaintance violence' increased steeply until 1995, before declining again. 'Domestic violence' grew even more steeply, before again falling.

This is illustrated in the graph below.

This, and other crime trends, has led me previously to argue that the British Crime Survey/Crime in England and Wales data set for the 1981 to 2011/12 period is:

'a chronicle of the effects and after effects of the early 1980s recession. The rise in 'overall crime' from 1981 to 1995 can then be seen as a long-wave social reaction to the economic shock of the 1980s. The decline since the mid 1990s would then be seen as the long-wave social recovery from this shock.

In relation to violence specifically, however, economic shocks appear to have a variable influence: strong in relation to the propensity of people to assault acquaintances, friends, family members, and partners; largely irrelevant when it comes to violence against strangers.

This is not to offer an excuse for domestic or acquaintance violence. Inflicting violence on others is a choice that some people - mostly men - make and others do not. It can be particularly distressing for the victim when the assailant is someone they know or trust.

Some social arrangements are, however, more unhealthy and potentially lethal than others. Growing up in a war zone is an obvious example. The distress of economic shocks, recessions and depressions can be a factor in individuals chosing to do things, including inflicting violence on others, that in other contexts they might not do.

The rise in suicide in the last year or two is a probable sign of social distress resulting from the current depression and austerity agenda. In that case the violence is turned inwards, rather than projected outwards onto others.

So what of the links between violence and recession since the start of the current global financial crisis? The graph below shows trends in domestic, acquaintance and stranger violence between 2004/05 and 2011/12. It uses 2008/09 - just before the banking crisis kicked in - as the 'index' year. This allows us to look at trends relative to that year, both prior to the start of the financial crisis, and following it.

Across that whole period stranger violence remained roughly constant. Acquaintance violence fell, before starting to rise in the last couple of years. Domestic violence also fell, before again starting to rise in the last couple of years.

Does this tell us that recessions inevitably cause more acquaintance and domestic violence? Not really. There are a lot of countervailing factors that can play a part in reducing violence levels. This includes social attitudes to violence more generally and access to good quality services for victims, potential victims, perpetrators and potential perpetrators.

It is also too early to tell whether the current recession will result in rising domestic and acquaintance violence. That said, the early signs do not look encouraging.