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

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

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.

“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.

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.

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 02/03/2015 - 11:45 am.

    This is no surprise. When people who have depended on handouts from the government are suddenly confronted with the possibility they’re on their own, the reaction is not unlike losing a loved one.

  2. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 02/03/2015 - 03:41 pm.

    Fortunately, your opinion about austerity is

    in the minority, Mr. Swift.

    As the outstanding French economist, Thomas Piketty, put it:

    The rise of anti-austerity parties in Greece and Spain is “good news for Europe”, the economist Thomas Piketty has said, adding that citizens are paying the price of “incredible” attempts to force southern European countries to pay off their debts too fast.

    link: http://ow.ly/Irtpl

    It is shameful that austerity policies, which no rational economist claims worked, has even apparently led to suicide of so many people.

  3. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 02/03/2015 - 05:24 pm.

    I have to admit I’d never heard of Piketty, but the fact that he’s a Socialist laughingstock among financial experts came as no surprise

    http://www.bloomberg.com/bw/articles/2014-05-29/pikettys-capital-economists-inequality-ideas-are-all-the-rage

    • Submitted by Bill Gleason on 02/04/2015 - 09:17 am.

      Piketty

      Most of our readers with an interest in economics already know about Piketty from his best selling book – #1 on the New York Times non fiction list – which is quite unusual for a book about economics.

      Capital in the Twenty-First Century http://ow.ly/ItVRO

      There you will find over 1400 comments as well as a huge number of excerpts from book reviews.

      For example:

      French economist Thomas Piketty has written an extraordinarily important book. Open-minded readers will surely find themselves unable to ignore the evidence and arguments he has brought to bear… In its scale and sweep it brings us back to the founders of political economy… The result is a work of vast historical scope, grounded in exhaustive fact-based research, and suffused with literary references. It is both normative and political. Piketty rejects theorizing ungrounded in data… The book is built on a 15-year program of empirical research conducted in conjunction with other scholars. Its result is a transformation of what we know about the evolution of income and wealth (which he calls capital) over the past three centuries in leading high-income countries. That makes it an enthralling economic, social and political history. (Martin Wolf Financial Times 2014-04-15)

      To the cognoscenti, Martin Wolf is no slouch.

      Socialist laughingstock, Mr. Swift?

      Hardly

  4. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 02/04/2015 - 08:42 am.

    Just Imagine for a Moment

    How many lives could have been saved if the pro-austerity economists and pundits,…

    whose ideas, now resoundingly proven to have been WRONG,…

    were clearly based, not on sound science and research but on their own, internally-motivated ideas about what must certainly be true,…

    had kept their radical, regressive, and (again) WRONG ideas to themselves.

    The world would be a much happier, healthier place,…

    although a few, very wealthy individuals would have had to take a bath on the massive profits they unwisely expected to gain by far-too-freely lending money to individuals and nations which,…

    if they had done ANY homework on their borrowers,…

    they would NEVER have lent in the first place.

    Because those wealthy individuals have reserves far beyond what they would need to carry them through such “hard times,” THEY should have been the ones to “suffer” for their own poor judgment,…

    rather than being allowed to destroy the economic lives of people and nations and drive many folk to suicide.

    And, by the way, if you’ve never heard of Piketty, you have ZERO basis upon which to comment on any economic issue, since you clearly are not paying any attention to actual economic research nor to how recent decades have proven those economic ideas which arrived with Ronnie Raygun to be patently false.

  5. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 02/05/2015 - 10:37 am.

    I have educated myself about Mr. Piketty. Perhaps you would appreciate the opportunity to do so as well.

    From The Financial Times…..

    “Piketty findings undercut by errors”

    http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/e1f343ca-e281-11e3-89fd-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3QsXk4LE3

    • Submitted by Bill Gleason on 02/05/2015 - 01:36 pm.

      Alas, Mr. Swift, your education about Piketty is

      still incomplete.

      Apparently you missed the link in your citation to the Financial Times [“Piketty findings undercut by errors”]

      wherein your citation is refuted.

      Growing inequality should be cause for concern – FT.com http://ow.ly/IyPTN

      Sir, No one familiar with international literature on income and wealth distribution is likely to be surprised by the discovery reported on the front page of your paper (May 24) that there may be problems with the reliability of some of the data in Professor Piketty’s bestselling book. Difficulties of this kind are common in statistical studies covering long periods and many countries. What will come as a surprise is Mr Giles’ conclusion that, contrary to the book, available evidence does “not show any tendency towards wealth inequality since 1970”. If that is the case, why are the Bank of England and the IMF sufficiently alarmed by the large and growing inequalities in the UK and other countries to advocate publicly policy changes that would arrest and reverse this trend?”

      The evidence supporting the need for such action is considerable and growing. For example, the US Congressional Budget Office whose responsibility is to provide “non-partisan analysis for the US Congress” published in 2011 a report with detailed information about changes in income inequality since the 1970s. Between 1979 and 2007, incomes (after tax and including social benefits) of the wealthiest 1 per cent of US households went up 275 per cent compared with an increase of only 18 per cent for those in the poorest 20 per cent. Overall, the data show that the increase enjoyed by the top 1 per cent was between 4 and 15 times greater than those experienced by much larger groups among the remaining 99 per cent. Moreover, according to available evidence, inequalities in the US and many other countries have become even greater since 2007. No wonder that the Bank of England and the IMF are concerned!

      Dr Mica Panic, Emeritus Fellow of Selwyn College, Cambridge, UK

  6. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 02/05/2015 - 01:57 pm.

    I’m sure you could find any number of leftist fans of Mr. Pickett. In fact, I’m surprised you haven’t cited Krugman, who although I haven’t read on the subject, am 100% confident has come to Pikett’s rescue.

    I note that Dr. Panic counters hard numbers with nothing but passionate personal commentary. Why is that? He doesn’t argue that Pikett’s math is flawed, but merely reiterates his unsupported conclusions!

    None of that refutes my original observation.

    • Submitted by Bill Gleason on 02/05/2015 - 04:58 pm.

      Mr. Swift, you need to read the second paragraph

      of Dr. Panic’s article more carefully. It certainly contains data that destroys your hypothesis that Piketty’s ideas are invalid.

      “For example, the US Congressional Budget Office whose responsibility is to provide “non-partisan analysis for the US Congress” published in 2011 a report with detailed information about changes in income inequality since the 1970s. Between 1979 and 2007, incomes (after tax and including social benefits) of the wealthiest 1 per cent of US households went up 275 per cent compared with an increase of only 18 per cent for those in the poorest 20 per cent. Overall, the data show that the increase enjoyed by the top 1 per cent was between 4 and 15 times greater than those experienced by much larger groups among the remaining 99 per cent. Moreover, according to available evidence, inequalities in the US and many other countries have become even greater since 2007. No wonder that the Bank of England and the IMF are concerned!”

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