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Austerity kills: study links economic policies and suicide

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About 15,000 people gathered in central Athens on Sunday to protest austerity measures and to support the new Greek government, led by and Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and the Syriza Party, which is challenging these draconian economic policies. But this issue isn’t just about policy and politics. It’s about life and death, according to a new study which links austerity to suicide.

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The suicide of a 77-year old pensioner in front of the Greek parliament garnered much outrage and media attention in 2012. The man cried out, “So, I won’t leave debts for my children,” before shooting himself in the head. In his suicide note, he  criticized the government of the time, which had “annihilated any hope for my survival and I could not get any justice. I cannot find any other form of struggle except a dignified end before I have to start scrounging for food from the trash.”

While links between Greece’s austerity and suicide rates have been suggested before and studies have looked at yearly rates of suicide, this one is the first month-by-month, multi-decade (from 1983 to 2012), nation-wide analysis of the correlation. Penn Medicine researchers published their findings in the British Medical Journal Open. Using national death certification data from the Hellenic Statistical Authority, the study found that,

    • In October 2008, as Greece entered a recession, suicides among men spiked by 13 percent and maintained a higher average in the following months. 
    • In June 2011, after a new round of austerities were past and suicides among both men and women increased by 36% and remained high.
    • The highly publicized April 2012 suicide of the male pensioner mentioned above was followed by a 30% percent increase in suicides among Greek men.

The study also found that while austerity-related news can cause spikes in suicide, prosperity news can cause decreases in suicides. The launch of the Euro in Greece in January 2002, for example, was followed by a sudden 27% decrease in suicides among men.

The study doesn’t just show a link between austerity policies and suicide but between media coverage of said policies and suicide rates. The sensationalizing reporting of the suicide of the 77 year-old pensioner, as well as the inclusion of details from the suicide note, could have sparked copy cat suicides. So, the takeaways of the study are two fold:

As future austerity measures are considered, greater weight should be given to the unintended mental health consequences of these measures. 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.

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Politicians, policy makers and the media should keep this in mind. Though economic policies and politics can be seen as theoretical or abstract, they can never really be separated from the real impact they have on human lives. The austerity-suicide link is a scary and powerful example of the connection between the personal and the political. Luckily, Greece’s newly elected Prime Minister his party, seem to get this.

 


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