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19th Sep 2018

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Mental health experts fear crisis will cause spike in suicides

  • Suicide rates are low in many southern European societies because there is a very high level of social networks (Photo: Tiago Rïbeiro)

Mental health experts have warned that the financial crisis is likely to provoke a spike in suicide rates across the EU, with young men in the Baltic States among the most vulnerable.

Around 58,000 people killed themselves in the EU in 2008, according to the European Commission. For a population of over 500 million, it does not sound like much. But it works out to be one person every nine minutes.

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The figures for 2009 are not yet in. But analysts at the World Health Organisation (WHO) and mental health charities expect that the financial crash, which struck in mid-2008, will see levels of depression and suicide go up with a delayed effect.

In one study by the Latvian government, suicide levels increased by 16 percent in 2008 compared to 2007 and look set to stay high in 2009.

"The most important factor is a sudden drop in GDP: People lose their jobs. It can lead to more alcohol consumption. It can make you lose your friends and it can cause violence in families," Matt Muijen, an expert at the WHO's Europe office in Copenhagen, told EUobserver.

"At the same time, countries tend to make cuts in social spending and healthcare. It's a toxic mix."

Mary Van Dievel, the director of Mental Health Europe in Brussels, an umbrella body for charities across the 27 countries, said: "Some member organisations expect the main impact to come in 2010. Others say there is already an increase in calls for help, that telephone help lines are already seeing an increase."

Looking at the differences between the EU member states, Lithuania stands out as having the highest suicide rate, at around 39 cases per 100,000 people. It is the highest in the world, comparable only to Belarus and Russia.

Hungary, Latvia, Estonia and Slovenia come next with rates of 23 and 24 per hundred thousand. Among the richer EU countries, Finland, France and Belgium lead, with rates of almost 20.

Lifelines cut off

The financial crisis has hit the Baltic states hard: Lithuania's economy shrank by 14 percent in the third quarter of 2009 compared to 2008. Estonia's GDP fell 15.6 percent and Latvia's by 19 percent.

"Bankruptcies and the reduction of income have put many people in a state of desperation. On the other hand, the possibilities to get emotional support and help have been reduced almost to zero," Dace Beinare, from the Riga-based charity, Skalbes said.

Riga authorities have shut down municipal-funded psychological services, such as Skalbes' crisis centre. The city's schools have laid off "most" of their psychological counsellors, she explained.

Concerns about swingeing cuts in care in Bulgaria, Romania and Greece also abound.

The WHO's Mr Mujien noted that the problem is the most acute among young people (where unemployment rates are highest), in rural communities and among men, who tend to use more violent means to end their lives.

"It depends also on access to firearms. Men tend to shoot themselves or to hang themselves. Women tend to take pills," he said. In Lithuania, five men take their own life each year for every one woman.

But if a sudden drop in GDP signals trouble ahead, there is no simple correlation between a country's wealth and its rates of depression or suicide - a complex and intimate human problem, which is hard to capture with statistics alone.

Learning from Greece

"Each victim of suicide gives his act a personal stamp which expresses his temperament, the special conditions in which he is involved, and which, consequently, cannot be explained by the social and general causes of the phenomenon," the French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, wrote in a seminal study on the subject in 1897.

In an apparent paradox, some of the EU's poorer countries, such as Greece, Portugal, Romania and Bulgaria, have low suicide rates due to cultural factors, such as the way in which families stick together. Greece and Cyprus have the lowest in the EU at less than five per 100,000.

EU leaders on 11 February announced they would stand by Greece, whose economy teeters on the edge of collapse, while lecturing Athens on fiscal policy. But Mr Muijen pointed out the irony that richer EU states could look to Greek society for lessons on well-being.

"We can learn from Greece," he said. "Rates are low in many southern European societies because there is a very high level of social networks, because their families function very well."

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