We examine the link between employment status and suicide risk using a panel of US states from 1996 to 2005 with monthly data on suicides, the duration of unemployment spells and the number of job losses associated with mass-layoff events. The use of aggregate data at the monthly level along with the distribution of unemployment duration allows us to separate the effect of job loss from the effect of unemployment duration, an important distinction for policy purposes, especially for the timing of potential interventions. Our results are consistent with unemployment duration being the dominant force in the relationship between job loss and suicide. Nevertheless, mass-layoffs may be powerful localized events where suicide risk increases shortly afterward. Implications for the design of unemployment insurance are discussed. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.