Europe’s four-year economic collapse has left an indelible scar on the continent, and the depressing data-points documenting its decline just keep rolling in. On Thursday, a Spanish suicide help-line reported that it saw a 30-percent increase in the number of calls it fielded in 2012. With a quarter of the Spanish population and half of its youth out of work, despair is just around corner for Spaniards these days, and Thursday’s numbers offer a glimpse of what has become one of the more dismal sub-plots of the eurozone recession: a marked increase in the number of suicides.
The call data offer something of a proxy for actual suicides and overall mental health, painting a dismal picture of the current situation in Spain. “Among young people what we find is a sense of desperation, not just because of the crisis, but because of an existential emptiness,” Alfonso Echávarri of the Navarra helpline told the Guardian. “We can’t say the numbers have risen specifically because of the crisis, but there are many more callers who mention financial problems, depression and anxiety.”
The question of whether suicides increase as a result of financial crisis is a hotly debated topic, and experts in the field emphasize that each case of a person taking his or her own life stems from a web of complex factors. Financial difficulty may be but one part of that web. “We all seek understandable reasons for that kind of behavior,” Dr. Yeates Conwell, a professor of psychology and the co-director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Suicide at the University of Rochester in New York, told ABC in October 2008. “To say that somebody kills themselves because of their financial stress is going to be a gross oversimplification.”
But the numbers certainly indicate that financial crisis corresponds to an uptick in suicide rates. Between 2007 and 2008, Greece and Ireland — two of the countries hardest hit by the recent spate of economic troubles — saw increases of 17 and 13 percent, respectively. More recent data suggest that, between 2010 and 2011, the suicide rate in Greece increased by 26.5 percent, or an additional 100 suicides. In the United States, researchers estimate that the suicide rate has increased four times faster during the recession than in previous years. That means an excess of 4,750 suicide deaths:
The anecdotal evidence is even more heart-wrenching than the data. In April 2012, Dimitris Christoulas, a 77-year-old pharmacist, put a gun to his head in a square in downtown Athens and pulled the trigger. Now, the lines of his suicide note are engraved on a marble plaque near the tree under which he killed himself:
The government has annihilated all traces for my survival, which was based on a very dignified pension that I alone paid into for 35 years with no help from the state. I see no other solution than this dignified end to my life so that I don’t find myself fishing through garbage cans for my sustenance.
That’s what might be called the other side of austerity.