EU Economy
Suicide rates jump in Greece and Ireland during financial crisis; Road accidents dip in Europe
By Finfacts Team
Jul 8, 2011 - 3:54 AM

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Indexed changes in adult unemployment and in age-standardised suicide rates (age 0–64 years) in old (pre-2004) and new European Union Member States; 2007 is the index year, and y-axis values represent proportional change relative to that year.

Research published on Friday shows that suicide rates jumped in a sample of 10 European countries during the financial crisis, led by Greece and Ireland. Meanwhile, the number of road accident fatalities has dipped.

David Stuckler, a sociologist at Britain's Cambridge University, Martin McKee of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and Sanjay Basu of the University of California San Francisco published their initial analysis in the Lancet journal and said the data "reveal the rapidity of the health consequences of financial crises."

The researchers say complete data for the period 2000-09 are currently only available for 10 of the 27 European Union (EU) countries: six in the pre-2004 EU (Austria, Finland, Greece, Ireland, the Netherlands, and the UK) and four in the post-2004 EU (Czech Republic, Hungary, Lithuania, and Romania). They combined data from countries in each group, weighted by population size.

In the period 2007-09, the countries facing the most severe financial reversals of fortune, such as Greece and Ireland, had greater rises in suicides (17% to 391 and 13% to 527, respectively) than did the other countries, and in Latvia suicides increased by more than 17% between 2007 and 2008.

Greek unemployment doubled during the period while the Irish rate trebled. Greece has less suicides than Ireland, with a population 2.5 times larger.

Only Austria, which has a low rate of unemployment just above 4%, had fewer suicides in 2009 than in 2007, with the rate down 5%. In all of the other countries, the increase was at least 5%.

The researchers say that they observed a downward suicide rate until 2007 and they noted that every 1% increase in unemployment was associated with a 0·79% rise in suicides at ages younger than 65 years. They also say that there is no consistent evidence across the EU that all-cause mortality rates increased when unemployment rose, although populations varied substantially in how sensitive mortality was to economic crises, depending partly on differences in social protection.

Every US$10 per person increased investment in active labour market programmes reduced the effect of unemployment on suicides by 0·038%.

In the UK, the number of suicides rose almost 9% to 4,245 in 2009 from 2007, according to Dr. Stuckler.

Bloomberg says that since the 2008 downturn began, about 7% of more than 2,000 workers surveyed in England and Wales had started taking antidepressants for “problems directly caused by the pressures of recession on their workplace,” such as longer hours and low morale, according to research published last year by Mind, a UK-based mental health charity.

For every suicide there are on average 10 failed attempts and thousands of depression cases, which are much harder to count. Dr Peter Byrne, consultant liaison psychiatrist at Newham University Hospital in East London, told the London Independent, and he has seen an increase in patients who have self-harmed or attempted suicide because of "personal debt, loss of hope and uncertainty."

The researchers say that road-traffic fatalities also fell substantially, especially in new member countries where they were initially very high. The chart below shows three countries with high (Lithuania), medium (Hungary), and low (Netherlands) death rates before 2008, indicating that the scale of the post-crisis decline is related to the initial level. Thus, the rate of road-traffic fatalities in Lithuania fell rapidly, by almost 50%. However, when rates are already very low, as in the Netherlands, there is little scope to fall further.

Data published by the Irish Central Statistics Office last week showed that 386 men and 100 women took their own lives in 2010. Men between the ages of 35 and 44 were the most vulnerable to suicide, with 109 men from this age group taking their own lives.

The National Suicide Research Foundation welcomed a “levelling off” in the number of deaths by suicide but cautioned that the statistics were still provisional and could change.

Official statistics likely understate the number of suicides.

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