During the recent global downturn, suicide rates rose markedly in the EU - particularly in countries that were hardest hit. British-based researchers are trying to find out what makes societies more or less vulnerable.
The suicide rate had been falling for years
An article published by researchers with the British-based medical journal The Lancet highlights the human cost of the recent economic downturn.
They found that suicide rates rose markedly in European Union member states between 2007 and 2009. That reversed a steady downward trend in the number of suicides in EU countries recorded since the start of the millennium.
In the article, published on the journal's website on Friday, the researchers present their analysis of data from the 10 European countries for which complete statistics were available during the three-year period.
Not surprisingly, they found that the suicide rate rose most sharply in countries that were hardest hit by the economic crisis. Greece saw its suicide rate among people under the age of 65 jump by 17 percent in 2008 compared to the previous year. Ireland experienced an increase of 13 percent.
Old and new Europe
The rate for the six countries that belonged to the European Union prior to 2004 (Austria, Finland, Greece, Ireland, the Netherlands and Great Britain) increased by an average of seven percent in 2008, while the increase in the four that joined later (Czech Republic, Hungary, Lithuania and Romania) rose by just one percent. In both groups, the rate continued to increase in 2009.
The researchers also found that the number of suicides in both established and newer EU countries increased markedly long before official unemployment rates began to increase, in 2009.
The article, which the researchers describe as a "preliminary assessment" does not actually include an estimate of how much of the rise in suicides is directly linked to the economic crisis.
Greece's woes are far from over
The researcher who led a team of five public health specialists, David Stuckler of the University of Cambridge, told the Reuters news agency that they would seek to establish that link in further research. He also said that while there were now signs of an economic recovery, the impact of the downturn would continue to be felt for some time to come.
The human cost
"What we're now also seeing is a human crisis. There's likely to be a long tail of human suffering following the downturn," said Stuckler, who describes the suicide rate as "just the tip of the iceberg."
"Suicide itself is a relatively rare event, but wherever you see a rise in suicides there is also a rise in failed suicide attempts and in new cases of depression," Stuckler said.
The longer term goal is to better understand why different individuals, communities or societies seem to be either more vulnerable to or more resistant to economic shocks, the researchers wrote.
One theory that they continue to explore is the impact of a strong social safety net. The article points to the example of Austria, which experienced a slight decline in suicides during the period in question. At the same time though, their research suggests that there must be more to it than that - Finland, which has a similarly strong safety net, saw an increase in suicides of more than five percent.
Author: Chuck Penfold (Reuters, AFP)
Editor: Nancy Isenson