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Greece: Economy Triggers Suicide Epidemic

Can a fiscal meltdown trigger a suicide epidemic?

"Money can't buy happiness." True, but can it prevent suicide? Is there a correlation between a financial depression and personal depression? Let's take a look at Greece.

Greek society is in a financial free fall. The unemployment rate is 25 percent and the economy has SHRUNK by 1/5 over the last three years. Approximately 1,000 people a day are losing their job, and many others haven't had a paycheck in months. The debt accumulated by Greece in the past decade has yielded an economy on par with the Great Depression, a failed government and social unrest. No one is safe — even judges are protesting their 38 percent pay cut.

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Many who have jobs must now work much longer hours without extra pay. But, those who are drawing a paycheck are the lucky ones. Consider that unemployment for those below age 25 stands at 55 percent, and that percentage is rising daily. Even the future of the euro is threatened by this.

Businesses are closing down by the thousands, and many cannot get medical help because they don't have the money, and doctors are overwhelmed giving out free care. Incomes are down, fuel prices are up and the living conditions in Greece are crumbling. As a result, desperation rules.

Greece, has always had a historically low suicide rate, but no more. She is now experiencing an outright suicide epidemic. Whether done in private or in the town square during rush hour, people (mostly men) are giving up and taking what they consider a dignified exit. In June, there were 350 suicide attempts, and 50 deaths in Athens alone. Many were middle class and most were carried out IN PUBLIC, to make a statement. Consider the sobering fact that since 2010 more than 2,500 people have committed suicide in Greece. Ta Nea, the Greek newspaper, states the whole country is "on the verge of a nervous breakdown."

We know that acute and chronic stress can cause depression, and depression is the number one risk factor for suicide. What is perhaps less recognized is that a severe financial collapse is arguably the most severe stressor of all. Take a depressed environment, no chance for employment and no means to support yourself or your family. You have no money, little food and feel helpless to change anything, find a job or take charge of your life. Add in hopelessness that things will never get better and suicide can suddenly seem like a reasonable alternative.

However, historically, Greece has had it much worse than this. They were conquered by the Romans, invaded by the Goths and the Huns, annexed by the Byzantine Empire, invaded by the Serbs and then controlled by the Ottoman Empire. During WWII, Greece was conquered by Germany, and virtually all Jewish citizens were deported to Nazi extermination camps, while hundreds of thousands of Greeks died from starvation in the winter of 1941-42.

Then, in 1981 Greece joined what became the European Union and eventually adopted the euro. This ushered in the greatest prosperity the region had ever known, and for the last 30 years the living has been good and easy in Greece. So, the question now is why the spike in suicide across the country? In WWII, the Greek resistance fighters were known as some of the fiercest in all of Europe, fighting to the death rather than surrendering. How can that "never give up" spirit possibly have changed in 50 years?

The answer is explained by learned helplessness, which is a type of depression that results from an unforeseen, chronic, negative situation that is perceived as inescapable. The individual feels worthless, helpless, hopeless and that they will never be able to cope with, or escape the current circumstances. The explanation for giving up is directly related to a feeling of control over events. The situation may be horribly dire, but as long as you feel that by fighting back you can make even a small difference, there is hope. And as long as there is hope, you don’t give up. 

And, even though Greeks have had it much worse in the past, the very fact that they have had it so good over the last 30 years makes fighting back that much harder. Humans become acclimated to a ‘perceived normal’. The easier we have it, the less we need coping skills to deal with adversity and in my clinical experience these skills, like any other, will atrophy away if not needed or used. It's simple and unproblematic to get used to the easy life, but it then becomes infinitely more difficult to accept and acclimate to a future hardship.

The only good news in all of this — not that there is much — is that we as a species are remarkably resilient. The new circumstances in Greece will eventually be understood and reluctantly accepted. At that point, the situation will still be every bit as severe, but it will be viewed as the ‘new normal’. Once that acceptance occurs, the need to bemoan the loss of the past will end, and the focus will gradually shift to surviving in the new world.

The message for the rest of us is that Greece does not exist in a vacuum and the very same scenario  could one day engulf other countries, including the USA. In America we tend to have an “it can’t happen here” mindset. But I bet if you asked any Greek during their boom economy if they would predict a complete financial collapse and a suicide epidemic within 10 years, they all would have said, “that could never happen here."

Dale Archer, M.D., is a clinical psychiatrist and author of The New York Times bestseller, Better Than Normal: How What Makes You Different Can Make You Exceptional.

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