The double suicide, in a working-class neighborhood in the Greek capital in late May, is just one incident among thousands of suicides this year that have shaken European societies as mounting job losses, cutbacks in public services and shrinking government pensions due to the continent’s financial upheaval take a toll on mental health.
In Greece, which is in its fifth year of recession, such suicides have sparked violent clashes between police and those opposing austerity who have held the victims up as martyrs. In Italy, widows of businessmen who have committed suicide — such as builder Giuseppe Campaniello, who set himself on fire outside a government tax office in Bologna on March 28 after his company collapsed — have held demonstrations. And in Ireland, where citizens are jumping off quays in Dublin, Cork and Limerick in alarming numbers, the mobile telephone company Vodaphone volunteered to give up the stadium advertising space it bought at soccer and hurling games for a suicide prevention campaign.
So many people have been killing themselves and leaving behind notes citing financial hardship that European media outlets have a special name for them: “economic suicides.” Surveys are also showing increasing signs of mental stress: a jump in the use of antidepressants and illicit drugs, a rise in depression and anxiety among workers worried about salary cuts or being laid off, and an increase in the use of sick leave due to psychological problems.
“People are more and more uncertain about their future, which is leading to a sharp rise in mental health problems,” said Maria Nyman, director of Brussels-based Mental Health Europe, a multinational coalition of mental health organizations and educational institutions.
In recent years, researchers in the United States and elsewhere have repeatedly identified a correlation between suicides and unemployment or other economic distress. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last year that suicides increased during periods of economic stress, including the Great Depression, the oil crisis of the 1970s and the double-dip recession of the 1980s. Other studies have estimated that people with employment difficulties are two to three times as likely to commit suicide than the population as whole.
As the financial crisis in Europe enters its third year, medical experts, public health groups and trade unions are warning that mental health problems are reaching a crisis point and that the situation is going to get worse as austerity measures enacted in the past few years take effect.