When Economic Instability Turns Deadly

In Greece, there's a link between a weakened economy and mental health.
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The sorrowful, mythological hero Ajax. (Photo: Jdsteakley/Wikimedia Commons)

The sorrowful, mythological hero Ajax. (Photo: Jdsteakley/Wikimedia Commons)

On Monday, Newsweek’s Lauren Zanolli reported on the rising suicide rate in Greece. As the country has fallen into economic instability, so too, it seems, has the mental health of an increasing number of Greek citizens.

"[T]he toll of recent events is written clearly on the faces of many people here," Zanolli writes. "The emotional impact of the crisis has also been steadily chipping away at this country that prides itself on its never-say-die resiliency." Specifically, Zanolli cites a newer study published in BMJ Open, which reports a 35-percent jump in the suicide rate during the first two years of austerity programs.

In periods of economic downturn, suicide becomes a sadly common trend.

A 2012 study in the Lancet found that, in the United States, the suicide rate increased four times faster between 2008 and 2010—the peak of the recession—than it had in the previous eight years. "The rate had been increasing by an average of 0.12 deaths per 100,000 from 1999 through 2007," writes the New York Times’ Benedict Carey in his overview of the study. "In 2008, the rate began increasing by an average of 0.51 deaths per 100,000 people a year."

The cause of rising suicide rates is threefold, according to researchers: job loss, home foreclosures, and debt.

A similar study from 2014 published in the British Journal of Psychiatry confirms as much: "We estimate that the Great Recession is associated with at least 10,000 additional economic suicides between 2008 and 2010," the authors write. The cause of rising suicide rates is threefold, according to researchers: job loss, home foreclosures, and debt. But that’s not to say a recession causes mental illness in previously healthy people; rather, people already suffering from depression tend to find their mental conditions worsen—a fact demonstrated, according to the researchers, by an uptick in anti-depressant prescriptions during observed times of economic strife. This might seem like a non-trivial disparity, but it’s a key point—one that underscores the need for support services, which, given severe austerity measures, might be deemed expendable.

As Zanolli notes in her Newsweek story, Greece's economic downturn has precipitated a decline in health care access, too. "As many as 2.5 million people lack health insurance today," Zanolli writes, "and some 800,000 are estimated to lack unemployment benefits and the means to access health care."

While Greece mulls selling its islands and world-famous ruins to pay off debt, it’s important to consider the 2012 Reuters report in which public health experts singled out Sweden and Finland as countries that avoided spikes in mental illness and suicide by "investing in employment initiatives to help get people back on their feet." Selling off focal points of local tourism—and potentially cutting even more jobs—seems like it would have the opposite effect, no?

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