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article imageAusterity drove up Greek suicides by a third

By Richard Ingham (AFP)     Feb 2, 2015 in World

Suicides in Greece surged by a third after the country implemented an austerity programme in June 2011, health investigators said on Monday.

After the measures were passed, the number of suicides leapt by 35.7 percent compared to preceding months, they said.

The increase was sustained for the rest of 2011 and reached an all-time peak in 2012, the final year covered by the study.

Delving into anecdotal evidence that the toll of suicides had risen, researchers in the US and Greece looked at data for self-inflicted deaths over a 30-year span, from January 1, 1983 to December 2012.

They looked at official figures provided by the Hellenic Statistical Authority as well as "potentially misclassified" suicides.

These were deaths that were probably suicides but had been categorised as accidents, possibly because of religious taboo.

During the 30 years, 11,505 people were considered to have taken their own lives -- 9,079 men and 2,426 women.

The graph was then matched against 12 big economic events over the three decades.

Monthly suicides fell when the news was good: for instance, when the euro was launched in Greece in January 2002, a sharp but short-lived fall of 27.1 percent occurred among men.

The monthly tally began to climb in October 2008 at the time of the financial crisis, rising by 13 percent among men.

It then shot up further in 2011 when the government pushed through the austerity package to secure an international bailout for Greece's economy.

- Austerity and messaging -

A striker walks with a Greek flag on his back during a protest in Athens on November 27  2014
A striker walks with a Greek flag on his back during a protest in Athens on November 27, 2014
Louisa Gouliamaki, AFP/File

Lead author Charles Branas, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania, said the findings threw up two key conclusions.

One was about the impact of austerity on mental health and the need to help vulnerable people in the eye of an economic storm.

But another was about communication.

There was a 30-percent surge, albeit a temporary one, in male suicides in April and May 2012 after a pensioner killed himself in Athens' main square in response to the austerity.

The event was massively and sometimes emotionally covered by the media.

"We found that perhaps it is the economic policies themselves, but also the public messaging of these policies (by the government and the press) that are both driving the changes in suicide," Branas said in an email exchange with AFP.

An important task "is to think about different, less ominous messaging when austerity policies are enacted and perhaps even to consider less drastic policies that achieve similar goals," he said.

The study, published online in BMJ Open, is the first attempt to chart suicides in Greece on a monthly, decade-spanning scale and to correlate them to big economic events.

Men -- the traditional breadwinners in Greek society -- bore the brunt, although the number of suicides among women rose dramatically from June 2011, it found.

The austerity package was narrowly passed amid violent demonstrations outside the Greek parliament and strikes that halted most public service.

Media "speculations" in Greece had put the rise in austerity-linked suicides at "anywhere from 17 percent to 40 percent," the paper said.

A 2013 study found that in Spain, there was an eight-percent increase in suicides following the start of the financial crisis there in 2008.

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