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Culture

Financial Crisis Increasing Suicide Risk, WHO Warns

With global stock markets plunging and some banks teetering on bankruptcy, the World Health Organization (WHO) is warning of a surge in suicides and mental illness. Just how depressing can it get?

Shadow image of woman holding her head

Will financial woes increase depression worldwide?

As the number of foreclosures grow and the value of stock portfolios plummet, news reports from the US of the financial fallout are growing increasingly dire.

A 90-year-old woman in Ohio shot herself while being served an eviction notice. A 45-year-old businessman in Los Angeles murdered five members of his family before turning the gun on himself, saying in a suicide note that he had done so because of his troubling financial situation.

While these stories put a human face on the toll the financial crisis has taken, the Director General of the World Health Organization this may only be the tip of the iceberg.

"We should not be surprised or underestimate the turbulence and the likely consequences of the financial crisis,” Margaret Chan told a meeting of mental health care professionals in Geneva, Switzerland on Thursday this week.

As people struggle to cope with losing their homes or livelihoods, she said, "It should not come as a surprise if we continue to see more stresses, more suicides and more mental disorders."

Financial crisis not the origin of the problem

Man sitting with his head down on a desk

Traders aren't the only ones feeling the pain

To those who can recall the stories of bankers jumping out of windows across New York at the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929, the correlation between a financial crisis and an increase in suicide seems quite real.

But to Ulrich Hegerl, Director of the Clinic for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at the University of Leipzig and spokesperson for German Research Network on Depression and Suicidality, the reality is more complicated than that.

“A person with depression can blame their depression on whatever has been in the news recently, so some might begin to say that they are depressed because of the financial crisis. But the financial crisis isn’t necessarily the basis for the illness in the first place.”

Indeed, one study conducted by the WHO/EURO Multicentre Study on Suicidal Behavior showed that a majority of suicides and suicide attempts committed by men were done so by those who were considered “economically active” (i.e. employed). That same study showed little annual change in numbers of suicides from 1989 to 2002, despite great economic changes after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Lack of care at root of problem

Child holding shovel while standing atop a pile of garbage

WHO is especially concerned about the mental health of those in low-income countries

Still, the problem is one that plagues many countries. A study released by WHO in 2001 identified depression as heading the list of disorders responsible for the global burden of disease in industrial countries.

According to the European Alliance Against Depression (EAAD), more than 58,000 persons in the countries of the European Union commit suicide annually. Europe-wide, dying from suicide accounts for the second highest risk of death for young men and the third highest risk for young women.

WHO chief Margaret Chanvstressed that the majority of people worldwide suffering from mental illness live in low- and middle-income countries, where there is an "abysmal lack of care," inadequate mental health care budgets and where victims suffer from social stigma and discrimination.

Hegerl likewise says that proper treatment is the only effective way to lower the prevalence of depression and suicide. And he warns against misinterpreting the statistics, which, according to the European Depression Association (EDA) show the number of cases of depression steadily increasing over the next decade.

“Simply because the financial crisis exists doesn’t mean we can assume a higher number of cases of depressed persons. It’s more complicated than that.”

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