Debt Most Deadly: Recession and Austerity Fuel Suicide in Italy

Economic Suicides in Italy
Filippo Massellani / Emblema

In late May, Marco Turrini reached his breaking point. Out of work for more than a year and under pressure from tax collectors, the 41-year-old publicity agent picked up his 4-year-old son, Samuele, and 14-month-old daughter, Benedetta, and threw them out of their sixth-floor window in Brescia, near Milan. He then struggled to push his wife to the same fate. She escaped, but he turned to the window and jumped. He died on impact, but his two young children lived for several long minutes while neighbors tried to save them. The story is tragic, but continues to repeat itself in scenes of desperation across Italy.

On the afternoon of May 10, Arcangelo Arpino, a 63-year-old entrepreneur from the suburbs of Naples, walked into the mosaic-laden Sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin of the Rosary in Pompeii and knelt to pray in front of a painting of a crowned Madonna and child. Then he walked out to the parking lot, sat on a short stone wall, and shot himself in the head with a 7.65 caliber pistol. In his pocket were three sealed envelopes. One was addressed to the Madonna, asking her to look over his wife and children. Another was a memo explaining the complicated economic state of his Euro Costruzioni construction business. The last was to Equitalia, Italy's national tax-collection agency, blaming them for pushing him over the edge with repeated threats and relentless tax assessments. "This is a difficult moment for so many people," said Claudio D'Alessio, the mayor of Pompeii. "The mark of blood on the grass is symbolic of the pain this community and country feel. But there are those responsible for killing him—the national government and the regional government helped kill this man. The citizens are at their limit."

On March 28, Giuseppe Campaniello set himself on fire in front of the Equitalia office in Bologna after he received a final notice about the doubling of a fine he could not pay. He died in a burn ward nine days later. He never had the courage to tell his wife, Tiziana Marrone, about their dire financial straits because of a mix of pride and embarrassment, she says. Marrone found his poignant suicide note: "Dear love, I am here crying. This morning I left a bit early, I wanted to wake you, say goodbye, but you were sleeping so well I was afraid to wake you. Today is an ugly day. I ask forgiveness from everyone ... A kiss to you all. I love you, Giuseppe."

Turrini, Arpino, and Campaniello are three of more than 80 Italians whose suicides and deaths can be linked to austerity measures since the beginning of the year. Marrone managed to form a group of the grieving widows of suicide victims dubbed "white widows" by the press. Their first march was in Bologna; they walked from the charred sidewalk where Campaniello set himself alight to the burn ward where he died. They waved white flags to symbolize their surrender and many carried their husbands' suicide notes. Marrone plans to stage marches in Rome and in the poorer southern regions of the country as the situation gets worse. "There is no way to find closure when your husband takes his life because he can't afford to support his family," Marrone told Newsweek. "I cannot even bear to think how desperate he must have felt to end it that way." Her aim is to build a network of suicide victims' family members and to call attention to the plight of Italy's new poor.

Many more have killed themselves in Greece, which once boasted the lowest suicide rate in Europe. There, 1,727 people have killed themselves (or attempted to do so) following the financial strains of the austerity measures since 2009. The ghastly trend is on the rise in Spain, too, where the unemployment rate for people under 25 years old is now more than 50 percent, which helps explain why that age group has the fastest-growing suicide rate in that country. In Ireland, which has been in recession since 2009, deliberate self-harm rates have doubled since the crisis began. In the countries most affected by the euro-zone crisis, depression is on the rise and suicides are spreading.

"The main reason for the rise in suicides is the recession and now austerity—both making hard times more difficult and reducing funding for mental-health services," says David Stuckler, a Cambridge professor who coauthored a report on the health effects of the economic crisis in Europe. "Usually an epidemic is thought of as a short-term increase in a disease—by that criterion, suicides would be an epidemic."

Across the southern countries, especially, suicide has become the only way out for many people who can no longer support their families or pay their employees. Most recent suicide victims are self-employed craftsmen and entrepreneurs like Arpino, or retirees like Dimitris Christoulas, whose monthly pension was slashed in half in Greece after harsh austerity cuts. In early April, the 77-year-old pharmacist shot himself in the head, splattering blood across Syntagma Square in front of the Greek Parliament as onlookers watched in horror. "I see no other solution than this dignified end to my life so I don't find myself fishing through garbage cans for sustenance," said the note in his pocket.

Public suicides have become a symbol of personal pain for many, and a sad inspiration for others. The week before the first Greek elections on May 6 failed to result in a new government, a geology professor who lost his job hanged himself from a lamppost, a student shot himself in the head because he said he had no future, and a priest threw himself off a balcony in despair over his parishioners' woes—all in the same day. On average, one person a day commits suicide in Greece. The frequency has numbed the press, who now tend to report the suicides only when they happen in public places.

While life-insurance policies are generally nullified in suicide cases, debts are often buried with the dead. In some cases, suicides are premeditated for months while the victims put their paperwork in order to ensure their survivors won't be saddled with lingering debt. "We get a lot of calls asking about what will happen to my family if I kill myself," a spokesperson for SOS Suicidio Artigiani, a suicide hotline for craftsmen set up two months ago in Treviso. "There is always a spike in calls when a suicide makes the news."

For the survivors of the Italian suicide victims, there is no question that the methods and pressure put on by debt collectors played a vital role in pushing their loved ones over the edge. Equitalia, Italy's public collection agency, has come under fire for the threatening way its collectors are treating those in debt. The state agency has been tasked with collecting $154 billion in back taxes and late fees stemming from decades of tax evasion. Equitalia slaps a 9 percent commission on top of the uncollected fees to do the state's dirty work. It also chases down car fines and unpaid bills for private creditors, sometimes with commission fees up to 15 percent. In 2010 the agency reported a €1.29 billion profit for collecting just €8.87 billion in taxes. This year, thanks to efforts to rein in tax evaders, Equitalia's profit could be almost 20 times higher. Last month it dropped the interest rate slightly, but the unforgiving doubling and tripling of fines that can't be paid by deadlines turns an ordinary tax debt or late fee into a crisis situation. Arpino's note specifically blamed Equitalia for "their determination to ruin my life."

Recently, Equitalia reached an agreement with the National Council of the Order of Labor Consultants in an attempt to analyze and identify situations in which extreme measures of tax collection could turn life threatening. Equitalia's head defense lawyer against debt-ridden clients quit publicly last April to protest the "Equitalia methods" of collection. "I am willing to give up my fees and this work to save my dignity," says Gennaro De Falco. "I do not know if this will help, but at least it is something to ease my conscience. And it may help to restore a modicum of dignity to lawyers and to give everyone an opportunity to reflect on the social and ethical management of this crisis."

A growing number of communities have forced the collectors out, taking the laborious task of tax and fee collection back in-house. The company and its employees have also been the target of several violent attacks by anarchist groups in recent months. In December a small bomb injured the director of the Rome office. In early May, 54-year-old Luigi Martinelli stormed into the Bergamo office with a rifle and took 15 employees hostage before finally surrendering to police after an 11-hour standoff. He owed back taxes that he couldn't pay by the Equitalia deadline. All he wanted was a little more time to pay without having the fee increased, he told police. In mid-May, an unidentified person lobbed a Molotov cocktail at the door of the Livorno Equitalia office. A few days earlier, a parcel bomb arrived at the headquarters in Rome. It was successfully defused before anyone was hurt.

Italian interim prime minister Mario Monti has staunchly defended Equitalia's work, saying that years of tax evasion have led to the current situation of crisis. Anna Maria Cancellieri, Italy's interior minister, is considering assigning military protection to the collectors' offices. "There have been several attacks on the offices of Equitalia in recent weeks," she said in an interview in La Repubblica newspaper. "I want to remind people that attacking Equitalia is the equivalent of attacking the State."

"White widow" Tiziana Marrone says that Equitalia should not be pulling a profit to collect taxes and fines that the state has ignored for years. She says technocrat prime minister Monti is "a banker who can count money and collect taxes, but he wasn't elected and he is not accountable to anyone." She says he and the interim government have not taken into account the true desperation of the citizens. She points to the fact that Italian parliamentarians are still among the highest paid in Europe while the citizens are being strangled by austerity cuts. "How can we respect this government when parliamentarians are still earning €30,000 a month and regular people cannot put €10 worth of food on the table? They all have blood on their hands," she says in a tearful interview. "They are turning us into a mafia of the desperate, and for what reason? This is not democracy. This is not liberty."

"I don't want anyone to live my experience, but every day there are more widows to console," she says. "But the problem won't last forever. At this rate, there will soon be far fewer poor people because they will all have killed themselves."