Austerity Drives Greek Suicides to Record Level as Germany’s Decrease

Greece
Greek parliament employees raise a mast after they replaced torn-off Greek flag with a new one atop the parliament in Athens Syntagma (Constitution) squar Yannis Behrakis/REUTERS

Suicides in Greece rose to their highest level in 30 years following the implementation of the country’s severe austerity programme in 2011, new figures reveal, in stark comparison with EU superpower Germany where suicide rates have continuously declined over the last two decades.

After severe cuts were introduced in Greece in June 2011 suicides increased by 35.5%, according to researchers in the U.S. and Greece, and the number continued to rise throughout the rest of 2011, reaching an all-time high in 2012.

While Angela Merkel has continued to talk tough on Greece’s problems, ruling out any debt cuts from EU creditor nations, Germany has witnessed a decline in the number of suicides since 1990, according to figures released by the Federal Institute for Population Research (BiB). In 1990, 13,900 Germans took their lives compared to 9,900 in 2012 - a 29% decrease.

Other EU countries have suffered from higher suicide rates in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Britain saw an increase of 7.8% from 2010 to 2011 according to figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the same period in which the Conservative-Liberal coalition entered Westminster and implemented a series of cuts.

Another study, published in 2013, found that suicide rates in Spain went up by 8% after the 2008 recession. However, none of the spikes were as notable as the increase in Greece of more than a third in 2011-12.

Discussing the reasons behind the surge in Greek suicides, the principal author of the research Charles Branas, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania, spoke of the importance of communication for governments and the media when it came to times of austerity, and also highlighted how governments need to be better prepared to deal with the short-term implications of financial cuts to vital services.

“The messaging of this is important I think. It could be the austerity policies themselves and partly the messaging of the policies. The messaging here is the responsibility of both the government and the press,” he said.

“The second thing I think is interesting is that the countries could be better prepared for the short-term fall out of the austerity measures. This would include both a more robust public health system and also a better health response. The Greek mental health system has really been eroded in the past five years in particular.”

The findings also revealed that, after the passage of the new austerity measures, suicides among Greek women rose an astonishing 35.8% and 18.5% among Greek men.

Reacting to the Greek suicide figures, a spokesperson for the Samaritans charity said: “Generally, we know that suicides do tend to go up in times of economic decline. Looking at our calls during the recession [since 2008] we have seen increases in the nature of our calls being about financial worries.”

Following the 2008 financial crisis, calls to the Samaritans from people with financial worries increased from one in 10 calls to one in six.

Last year, researchers at the University of Portsmouth found that, not only had suicides in Greece risen in correlation with spending cuts, but they calculated that 551 men had taken their lives “solely because of fiscal austerity” between 2009 and 2010.

Greek aid group Klimaka, who research suicide rates in the country and run a suicide prevention hotline, released similar findings in 2013, reporting that Greek suicides rose steadily from 2007 to 2011 and continued to do so in 2012 and 2013. The Athens-based charity was not immediately available for comment when contacted by Newsweek.

Branas noted that the findings showed that the implementation of “prosperity policies” led to a decline in suicides: “We looked at both austerity but also prosperity policies. One of them - the introduction of the euro banknotes and coins - led to a drop in suicide so it’s interesting to think that positive events may indeed have an effect in the other direction,” he said.

Greece’s new government, the radical left-wing Syriza party, has called for an end to austerity policies and its enigmatic finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, has revealed that Athens will request debt swaps for its £238bn foreign debt, raising fears that the country will not be able to pay what it owes and will eventually have to leave the currency bloc.

In the UK, the Samaritans helpline is 08457 90 90 90 and the email address is jo@samaritans.org.