Tax debt as a contributing cause of suicide




If you are reading this and feeling overwhelmed by your own situation, please know that all debt problems can be solved. Many of us who have gone through this know that there is a clear path to relief of this stress even if the path is not visible to you yet.

The incidence of tax debt is increasing. Suicides are increasing. But are they related? After reading a peer accountant’s tragic story of a young married father who committed suicide shortly after the accountant informed him of the amount of his tax debt, I surveyed published articles to learn more about the connection between tax debt and suicide.

I conclude that while there is a strong demonstrated connection between debt and suicide, the specific type of debt – tax debt in this case – has not been studied. It also seems clear that while we can quantify the number of people with tax debt, the increasing trend toward more of these cases as well as the increasing suicide trend in the overall population, it is still unclear that we can forecast the number of suicide deaths due to the combined trends. These notes below are in random order.

A 2017 study in Australia indicated tax debt was a contributor to higher suicide rates among construction workers. The article also referred to other reports indicating suicide is higher among men than women. “Of the financial issues, the inability to pay tax loans was reported most frequently. These tax debts reportedly had a flow on effect on employability and ability to obtain further loans.” Milner, A., Maheen, H., Currier, D., & LaMontagne, A. D. (2017). Male suicide among construction workers in Australia: a qualitative analysis of the major stressors precipitating death. BMC public health, 17(1), 1-9.

Those in debt as twice as likely to think about suicide. Meltzer, H., Bebbington, P., Brugha, T., Jenkins, R., McManus, S., & Dennis, M. (2011). Personal debt and suicidal ideation. Psychological Medicine, 41(4), 771-778. doi:10.1017/S0033291710001261

“The overwhelming majority of economic suicidees are men, most between the ages of 45 and 64. Many were entrepreneurs or artisans whose companies were failing because they were profoundly in debt or had been denied credit.” Muehlebach, A. (2014). On economic suicide. Anthropology News.

A recent 2021 U.S. paper in the Journal of Clinical Psychology concludes that debt burden is a strong social determinant of suicide risk and intervention targets. This seems to suggest that suicide screening might be combined with tax representation services. Naranjo , D. E., Glass, J. E., & Williams, E. C. (2021). Persons with debt burden are more likely to report suicide attempt than those without: a national study of US adults. The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 82(3), 31989.

At least three studies show that the earned income tax credit has a significant effect on reducing suicide rates. This is interesting because tax credits are usually seized by government to pay tax debts but we eased this policy during the recent Covid crisis. Morgan, E. R., DeCou, C. R., Hill, H. D., Mooney, S. J., Rivara, F. P., & Rowhani-Rahbar, A. (2021). State earned income tax credits and suicidal behavior: A repeated cross-sectional study. Preventive medicine, 145, 106403.

Suicide rate increases during a recession or times of economic crisis, but this study did not specifically look at tax debt. W.C. Kerr
Economic recession, alcohol, and suicide rates: comparative effects of poverty, foreclosure, and job loss Am. J. Prev. Med. (2017)

In 1998 the IRS settled a lawsuit brought by a widow claiming that IRS debt collection action drove her husband to suicide.

Kelly Phillips Erb, former Forbes tax attorney contributor and former podcast host where I appeared as a guest in 2022, covered a suicide attempt outside of NBC’s New York studio in 2013 that was linked to IRS tax debt.

Yesterday U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said that she is “nervous” about the U.S. defaulting on its debt and cautioned that Americans likely will face a scary and spiraling recession if Congress doesn’t raise the debt ceiling this summer. With the established connection between recession and suicide, I wonder, does “nervous” for Yellen translate to “suicidal” for many Americans?

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