‘Economic suicides’ shake Europe as financial crisis takes toll on mental health

Antonis Perris, a musician unemployed for more than two years, was desperate. Perris wrote in an online forum late one night that he had run out of money to buy food and cursed those responsible for the economic crisis in Greece. “I have no solution in front of me,” he typed.

The next morning, Perris took the hand of his ailing 90-year-old mother. They climbed to the roof of their apartment building and leapt to their death.

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.

Matt Muijen, the World Health Organization’s mental health program manager, said the rise in mental health issues is affecting people’s physical health and, in turn, becoming a drag on European economies. Mental health problems tend to increase the frequency that employees miss work and reduce their productivity when they show up. Partly as the result of those factors, mental health problems have the potential to cut the gross domestic product of some crisis-stricken European countries by 3 to 4 percent, a significant blow, according to an analysis by the International Labor Organization, a U.N. agency.

“The recovery of the European economies is dependent on the mental health of the population,” Muijen said.

Big need and big cuts

The upward trend in suicides began in 2008, when the euro zone entered a recession. In a study published last year in the journal Lancet, researchers found that suicides rose from 2007 to 2009 in nine of the 10 countries they studied. The countries “facing the most severe financial reversals of fortune,” they wrote, saw a greater rise in suicides. The most dramatic change was in Greece, where the number of suicides rose 19 percent.

The study, by David Stuckler at the University of Cambridge and others, found that for every 1 percent increase in unemployment, there is an associated 0.8 percent increase in suicides by people younger than 65.

Although the rate of suicides remains lower than in other countries, including the United States, the trend has alarmed mental health providers because suicide was so rare in the past. Greece, where the Orthodox Church denies funerals for people who take their lives, had the lowest suicide rate of any nation in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development before the downturn and surge in unemployment.

While comprehensive suicide statistics for Europe lag by a year or two, smaller studies show the trend might be accelerating.

The Greek Health Ministry reported that suicides jumped 40 percent in the first half of 2011 compared with the same period in 2010. In a single year, the rate increased from 2.8 suicides for every 100,000 people to at least five per 100,000. The country’s national depression and suicide hotline registered a 40 percent increase in calls from 2010 to 2011 and reported that the majority of people seeking help had problems including the loss of a job or an inability to cover living costs.

And at a time when the need is increasing, public sector help has been reduced. According to the Society of Social Psychiatry and Mental Health, the cutbacks have had a severe impact on people’s ability to get the help they need — there’s a three-month wait for people seeking public mental health services, social security has been reduced and community-based centers for care have been shut down.

Final notes, analyzed

“I see no other solution than this dignified end to my life, so I don’t find myself fishing through garbage cans for my sustenance.” — Retired pharmacist Dimitris Christoulas, 77, who shot himself in Athens’s central square on April 4

“Violence is to work 40 years for peanuts and to wonder if you’ll ever get to retire. . . . Violence is unemployment.” — Savvas Metoikidis, 44, who hanged himself in his father’s warehouse in Thessaloniki on April 21

“I hope my grandchildren will never be born in Greece.” — A 61-year-old electrician who hanged himself from a tree in Athens on May 30

The suicide notes left in coat pockets or on desks in Greece are being passed around on the Internet and studied like the final treatises of revered scholars.

Friends and neighbors of Perris, who was 60 years old, say they have read his note over and over to try to figure out whether they could have done something differently. A piano and guitar player, Perris had made a decent living playing in taverns and other venues around Athens before the recession. But in recent years, he had difficulty finding a regular gig. He spent most of his day in his apartment, except for in the afternoons when he would take his mother for a walk around the complex, rain or shine.

“Everyone loved him,” Alexsis Tsitsos, 49, the owner of a cafe across the street from the apartment complex where Perris lived. “We could have helped and supported him, but he never expressed his problems to us.”

In his last note on an online music discussion site, Perris wrote that his mother had Alzheimer’s disease and that he had recently learned he was ill. He had not expected a recession, so he had not saved money. His credit cards were maxed out. He had started selling his family’s possessions but saw no permanent solution to his problems. He blamed the “powerful of this Earth” for his situation.

Vangelis Yanos, 55, a neighbor who used to work on commercial ships and whose pension was cut in half over the past year because of the government’s austerity measures, said he knows many Greeks in the same situation as Perris’s.

“We had organized lives, and then suddenly the economy crashed and it has destroyed all of us,” he said.

Yanos and others, gathered next to the park where Perris and his mother died, predicted that there would be more suicides.

“In this neighborhood,” Yanos said, “there is a lot of anger and sadness, and you will find a lot of people ready to do the same thing.”

Ariana Eunjung Cha is a national reporter for the Post. She has previously served as the newspaper’s bureau chief in Beijing, Shanghai and San Francisco, a correspondent in Baghdad and as a tech reporter based in Washington.
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