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Suicides & Austerity in Fragile Economies: the ‘hidden’ crisis. By Vangelis Agrapidis

by on July 12, 2012

Financial crisis, public debt crisis, political crisis.. Governments adopt austerity policies as the solution to the problem, which looks like a lernaean hydra. But, what about the social crisis? Dogmatic adoption of austerity, may lead to the underestimation of the multidimensional impact these policies may have on the coherence of the social tissue. Whether austerity or growth policies are the key for economic recovery is not discussed in this article – I hope our prominent economists will solve it soon! But, whether austerity – as the adopted solution, including cuts in wages, pensions, social benefits and large scale privatisations – impacts on the increasing rate of suicides until now, it is. “Suicides by economic crisis” is a new term popped up by the media. Is it here to stay?

The figures – a new, brutal reality

There are studies that illustrate an increase in the suicide rates in EU level after 2007. However, the most fragile economies experience a brutal reality.

 Greece used to have one of the lowest suicide rates in the world. Now the suicide rates are the most rapidly increasing ones across EU. Before 2009 there were 2.8 suicides per 100.000 inhabitants. According to government statistics, during the period 2007 – 2009 the suicide rate among men increased by 24%.  But from January 2009 till December 2011, the figure is shocking: it soared to 40%. While the figures for 2010-2011 showed a slightly downward trend, there are 1300 cases during the first 6 months of 2012. Eventually, estimates for the year 2012 refer to almost 6 or more cases per 100.000 inhabitants.

In Ireland, the suicide rate increased by 16% during 2007-2009.  Between 2007 and 2008, there was a 13% rise in suicides for people under 65. Therapists named the after 2008 era as ‘ Celtic Tiger depression’; that is, a period of influx for middle-aged males who suffered from sleeplessness and lacking appetite in the aftermath of Ireland’s real estate destructive ‘bubble’.

In Italy and Portugal, the same story. In Italy, from 2005 to 2010, statistics show the suicides were doubled (52%). In Portugal, the suicide rate for 2009 was almost doubled compared to the figure in the beginning of the decade.

Does austerity has to do with it? – Decoding the figures

It is hard to formulate a rounded shaped picture of the phenomenon across Europe. The reason is the difficulty in data collection: some countries lag in reporting statistics; in others, the coroners are reluctant to classify some cases as suicides in order to protect surviving family members; and in others, the family members try to cover the incidents, because they want to avoid to be socially stigmatized or because they want the victim to be buried – and the Orthodox church refuses to do so for suicides. Nevertheless, what could obviously be suggested is that a combination of a fragile economy with the adoption of strict austerity policies impacts negatively on mental health; both in a society or an individual. Why is that?

Because cuts in welfare state matter. It goes without saying that squeezing public money incurs less available money for social protection services. So, cuts in health services affect socially vulnerable groups and disrupt their mental health.  In Greece, the situation is out of control: pharmacies, cannot provide medicines to cancer patients. A combination of an in debt, fragile economy within a strict austerity financial environment may result in patients’ privation.

Because unemployment matters, too. Findings from a European comparative study illustrated that an increase in unemployment by 1% was correlated with an increase in suicide rate of peopled under 65 years old by 0.79%. When the unemployment rate increased more than 3%, the effect on suicides was stronger. Given the unprecedented high unemployment across Europe nowadays, this finding should not be neglected. And up until now, austerity does not seem to have created more jobs.

Because the transitional phase towards privatization may cause additional unemployment, too; and the latter may be the mediating factor for increased short-term mortality. This is what a study for the impact of large scale privatisation programmes on mortality in post-communist countries found. However, one important dimension of their study was that, those who were members of at least one social organization ‘smoothed’ the above connection. Maybe social capital is an aspect that deserves more attention.

Also, an article from Lancet medical journal makes the picture clearer for Greece. The findings illustrated that citizens in high economic distress reported a ‘significantly higher’ number of suicide attempts than people who did well. When we consider Greece’s unemployment rate, which is over 20% in total (42% for young unemployment), then the above connection is more than alarming.

In Italy, finally, during 2008-2010, 39.2% of the victims were unemployed people. Simultaneously, there was an increase in the age group between 45-64 years old (the so-called ‘exiles’: those who are made redundant and have not completed the required years for getting their pension). Hoever, not only unemployed suicide in Italy; in 2010, among the 3048 victims, 362 were unemployed, 336 businessmen and 336 free-lancers. And for the first months of 2012, more than 25 suicide cases of businessmen have been related to economic downturn.

Who’s listening?

Suicides are not included in the political agendas – neither EU nor national ones. The political leaders, in their formal statements after EU Summit Meetings or in their parliamentary speeches, focus exclusively on austerity: ‘it is the difficult, but inevitable pathway we need to follow; as a union and as member-states’. But the pathway is seems to be a dead end for the fragile economies, isn’t it? I am afraid the term “suicides by economic crisis” is here to stay; unless it will become – I hope soon – part and parcel of political leaderships’ agenda.

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