An Australian study of unemployment and suicide has shown that jobless men are more likely to take their own lives during times of national economic prosperity.
Researchers believe the stigma of being out of work when the job market is buoyant increases the risk of developing mental health problems.
The 20-year study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, found that the longer men were unemployed the greater their risk of suicide.
It has prompted calls for job-seekers out of work for more than a month to be offered counselling when accessing Centrelink services.
Young men aged 25 to 34, and those aged 55 to 64 were at greatest risk, with those without work for more than four weeks being far more likely to suicide than those who had been jobless for less than a fortnight.
Dr Allison Milner, who led the University of Melbourne study that examined suicide and employment trends between 1985 and 2006, said while losing a job was a risk factor for women, it was significantly more so for men. ''Men are less likely to go to the doctor to talk about mental health problems. They also often base their identity on the role of being a breadwinner and therefore when that fails that can increase the risk of suicide,'' she said.
''When labour market opportunities increase in society, those people who are unemployed and have been unemployed for some time may feel more marginalised. What we suspect is that they're less able to attribute the loss of the job to the economic environment because everybody else is getting jobs and they still don't have one, and may lead to greater self-blame and internalisation of the fact that they're still trying to find a job.''
Dr Milner, a research fellow at the McCaughey Centre: VicHealth Centre for the Promotion of Mental Health & Community Wellbeing, said offering job-seekers support when welfare services were accessed could help save lives.
Frank Quinlan, chief executive of the Mental Health Council of Australia, agreed, saying long-term unemployment can have a devastating impact on physical and mental health.
''This study at least challenges the notion that the long-term unemployed are bludgers who are leading the good life at the taxpayers' expense and really reinforces the truth of unemployment, which is largely about despair and hopelessness and lack of opportunity.''
Hank Jongen, general manger of the federal Department of Human Services, said they already employed psychologists and social workers to give support to vulnerable Australians at times of transition and crisis.
''Social workers … offer specialist assessment and crisis intervention to many Australians who present [to the department] in distress or expressing suicidal thoughts. Specialist officers have established links as well as referral pathways to specialist mental health and suicide intervention service providers in their local communities,'' he said.
''Rapid and appropriate response to expressions of suicidal thoughts is a priority … We will look closely at the research you are highlighting and explore, as we always do, how we might improve our service.''
■For help or information call Suicide Helpline Victoria on 1300 651 251, or Lifeline on 131 114 or visit beyondblue.org.au