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European Economic Slump Leads to Suicide Spike

A man empties out the remains of an olive oil container from a trash bin in the northern Greek port city of Thessaloniki, Greece, January 4, 2011

A man empties out the remains of an olive oil container from a trash bin in the northern Greek port city of Thessaloniki, Greece, January 4, 2011

Countries across Europe are coping with an economic slump and researchers have found that it’s having an effect on suicide rates, especially in some of the worst hit countries.

Research published this week shows that suicide rates are on the rise across Europe. According to the study published in the medical journal The Lancet, Greece has seen the sharpest rise.

Pavlos Tsimas is a journalist based in Greece. He recently made a documentary about the trend. He interviewed family members who had lost loved ones and told VOA some of their stories.

"We investigated the case of a small businessman from Herakleion in Crete, who took his car, loaded it with tins of petrol, and first shot himself and then put fire to the whole car. Nothing was found of him, his body was totally extinguished by fire."

Greece feels sting

Greece is suffering the costs of a major public deficit. For more than a year, the government has cut spending and hiked up taxes in an effort to sort out its finances.

Many say it’s the only way to keep the Greek economy afloat. But it’s having devastating consequences for many Greeks. Today, one in six is unemployed.

Tsima said the businessman who lit his car on fire wasn’t the only one to go out in such a dramatic way.

"We found out that people killed themselves in a very dramatic and sometimes a very violent way, which maybe means that they are trying to make their suicide a statement, want the whole world to understand how badly they feel, how unlucky they were, how sad they have been, how hopeless they have felt."

He said in Greece, it’s mostly men who are killing themselves. And he said the number has gone up most on the island Crete. The reasons, he said, are complex. It’s not just about poverty or unemployment, but also about dignity and self respect, he said.

"I guess this is one of the reasons it happens mostly in Crete, where social and family life is more traditional, more patriarchal. The father of the family has to be respected as a figure of great strength. And when the economic problems arise, when jobs are lost and businesses are closed down, it is this despair because of the loss of respect, the loss of self esteem and the fact that the person feels that their life no longer has meaning that drives them to this kind of act," said Tsima.

Banking crisis slams Europe

Greece isn’t the only country seeing a rise in suicide.

The study looked at statistics in 10 European countries from 2007 and 2009, and found that while suicide had previously been going down in Europe, since the banking crisis hit it’s been on the rise.

Nine of the 10 countries surveyed had seen a 5 percent rise in rates. In Ireland, another country in economic turmoil, the increase is 13 percent.

David Stuckler, a sociologist at Britain’s University of Cambridge who co-wrote the report, said, “For the most part, the countries that have been more severely affected have experienced greater rises in suicides - Ireland, Spain the Baltics - reaching up to 16 percent in some of the worst affected countries like Greece.”

Meaningful job is crucial

Stuckler said attempted suicides and depression also are on the rise. He calls it a “mental health crisis.”

But he said there is good news. In countries where governments have helped get people back into work, like in Sweden and Finland, suicide rates have not increased.

“We found that just giving money to people who have lost jobs to replace their income did not appear to help. Instead, giving people a reason to get out of bed in the morning, a hope in terms of searching for a good, meaningful job seemed to be the most beneficial to helping people cope,” said Stuckler.

Governments across Europe need to learn that lesson, he said.