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Study links Greece’s austerity measures to much higher rate of suicide

An analysis of suicides revealed that the passage of Greece’s austerity measures were associated with “a significant, abrupt and sustained increase” in suicides.

A woman receives a portion of food at a soup kitchen in Athens on Jan. 20.
REUTERS/Marko Djurica

When a study released last year reported a strong link between austerity measures and suicides in Greece, some economics pundits quickly and aggressively challenged the findings.

Suicides rates had climbed elsewhere in Europe — and in the United States — after the 2008 global economic crisis, these skeptics pointed out, so if the suicide rate had gone up in Greece in recent years, it had nothing to do with the exceptionally severe cuts in government services and wages that were imposed on that country by international creditors.

Furthermore, the skeptics added, some of the data used in the study ended in 2009, but the new, strict austerity measures were not imposed until after the Greek debt crisis exploded in 2010.

Well, a new study has just been published, and this time those critics are going to have a lot more trouble dismissing the results.  An international team of researchers examined 30 years of monthly suicide data — including through the end of 2012 (the latest year for which they had complete data) — and found a strong correlation between austerity-related events and a rise in suicides.

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“The consideration of future austerity measures should give greater weight to the unintended mental health consequences that may follow and the public messaging of these policies and related events,” they conclude.

‘A significant and sustained increase’

Using death certificate data, the researchers assembled monthly counts of the 11,505 suicides (9,079 by men and 2,426 by women) that had been officially reported in Greece from January 1983 through December 2012. In addition, the researchers identified 12 austerity-related and prosperity-related events that had occurred during the 30-year study period — events that were highly publicized and, thus, might have had an impact on the mental health and well-being of ordinary Greeks. 

Prosperity-related events included the September 1997 announcement that Greece would be hosting the 2004 Olympics and the launch of the Euro currency in Greece in January 2002. Austerity-related events (all of which occurred between 2008 and 2011) included the start of the Greek (and global) recession in October 2008, the June 2011 announcement of a new austerity measures (alongside mass protests, strikes and riots), and the highly publicized April 2012 suicide of a Greek pensioner in a public square in Athens.

A month-by-month analysis of the suicides revealed that the passage of Greece’s unpopular austerity measures were associated with “a significant, abrupt and sustained increase” in suicides — an increase much higher than that associated with the start of the recession itself.

After the global economic recession began, in October 2008, the suicide rate among men in Greece rose 13 percent, the equivalent of an extra 3.2 suicides a month, the study found. Immediately after the austerity measures were instigated in June 2011, however, the rate jumped another 18.5 percent, or 5.2 additional suicides per month — among men and women  — and stayed that way for the rest of the year and throughout 2012.

In fact, the month with the most number of suicides during was June 2012, with 64. (The months with the least number were February 1983 and November 1999, each with 14.)

The study also identified a short-lived 30-percent rise in suicides (9.8 deaths a month) that began in April 2012, after a 77-year-old retired pharmacist killed himself outside the parliament building in Athens, saying he would rather die than suffer the humiliation of “scrounging for food from the rubbish.” That tragic and much-publicized event may have encouraged copycat suicides, the researchers suggest.

Among the prosperity-related events examined in this study, only one — the January 2002 launch of the Euro — was linked to a change in the suicide rate. That association was a positive one: an abrupt but temporary 27-percent decrease in male suicides.

The researchers found that the overall pattern of suicides rising after an austerity-related event held even after adjusting for the misclassification of suicide. As they explain in their paper, suicides are significantly underreported in Greece, and are often misclassified, either intentionally or unintentionally, as accidental deaths. Intentional misclassifications are usually done so the family can avoid the stigma associated with suicide. In addition, the Greek Orthodox Church considers suicide a sin and does not permit people who take their own lives to be interred with a burial service.

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Authorities need to be more proactive

Of course, this study demonstrates only a correlation between austerity-related events and a rise in suicides in Greece; it does not prove causation. As the study’s authors themselves acknowledge, “”the significant shifts that we identified may have been related to the austerity measure themselves or could have been related to different, but unmeasured, events that happened in the same months as our interruptions.”

Still, the findings are compelling. 

“As future austerity measures are considered, greater weight should be given to the unintended mental health consequences of these measures,” the study’s authors conclude. “Greater attention should also be paid to the public reporting of austerity measures and any subsequent suicide-related events that may follow. Educating the public over these events, while at the same time avoiding sensational language, unnecessarily explicit details and undue repetition of stories, are reasonable approaches to pursue.”

“It has been argued that the policies of austerity implemented in Greece have been largely unscientific,” they add. “Future economic policies, and the public messaging of these policies and related events, may benefit from the findings documented here.”

Let’s hope the pundits — and, more important, the European Union’s politicians and economics policymakers — are paying attention.

The study was published Monday in the journal BMJ Open, where it can be read in full.