By Inés Benítez
Rising rates of depression and suicide are among the most obvious signs of the increase in mental illness resulting from the economic crisis in Spain.
“Between December 2011 and March or April 2012, the number of suicides presumably linked to economic problems has increased significantly,” a forensic investigator in the southern Spanish city of Málaga, who asked to remain anonymous, told Tierramérica*.
During the first months of 2012, two well-known businessmen were found burned to death in their own cars in seaside towns in the province of Málaga, and all of the evidence seems to suggest that they took their own lives after their businesses went bankrupt, said the investigator, who did not offer any further details.
Suicide is already the leading cause of violent death in Spain, ahead of motor vehicle accidents. The number of suicides did not grow significantly between 2007, prior to the crisis, and 2010, the last year for which official statistics are available.
In 2007, deaths by suicide numbered 3,263, divided between 2,463 men and 800 women, according to a report on fatalities by cause of death released by the National Statistics Institute (INE). In the following years, slight fluctuations were observed: 3,457 in 2008, 3,429 in 2009 and 3,158 in 2010.
Statistics on suicide are not generally made public, and emergency services do not report them to the media, although deaths from other causes do receive news coverage.
“In 95 percent of cases, journalists do not go to the scenes of suicides, but they do show up at the scenes of homicides or accidents,” the forensic specialist reported.
Journalist Gema Martínez, who works for a local daily newspaper, told Tierramérica that suicides are generally not treated as “news” in order to avoid the potential for “copycats”.
“A great deal of care is taken when it comes to information on suicides and, in fact, when it is known that a death is the result of self-harm, this is not reported. It is almost as if it were part of an unwritten code of ethics,” she said.
But the scope of the health problem represented by an increase in suicides for social and economic reasons should be addressed by the media, said Martínez.
As psychiatrist Concha López told Tierramérica, suicide is generally the end result of a combination of factors. “The crisis and economic problems are one more reason that has been added, but not the only one,” she stressed.
Nevertheless, the crisis is undoubtedly becoming an increasingly powerful factor.
Unemployment currently affects 24.6 percent of the country’s economically active population, and there are 1.5 million households in which every member of the family is out of work, according to the INE. Spain has a population of over 47 million.
In addition, Spaniards have endured successive cuts in basic health care and education services, undertaken by the government to reduce the public deficit to 6.3 percent of GDP by the end of the year, so as to meet its commitment to the European Commission.
López said her psychiatric practice is receiving increasingly more men and women suffering from the symptoms of depression after losing their jobs, as well as others who are still employed but are facing a deterioration in work conditions and enduring considerable hardships to keep their jobs at any cost.
These patients suffer from “sadness, insomnia, anxiety, panic attacks, feelings of guilt and suicidal thoughts,” reported López, who said there has been a sizeable increase in the number of unemployed people who are “seeking answers” in the offices of psychiatrists and psychologists.
“In Málaga, the hospital emergency wards admit two or three people who have attempted to kill themselves every day,” said López, who has worked for eight years at the Community Mental Health Unit in Fuengirola, a town in the province of Málaga.
More than 50 percent of young people in Spain are unemployed and, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), one in every four children is poor.
The income gap between the rich and poor has grown more in Spain than in any other of the 27 countries of the European Union, according to the report “Exclusión y desarrollo social – Análisis y perspectivas 2012″ (Exclusion and social development: Analysis and outlook 2012), published by the Catholic organisation Caritas in February. The report places the poverty rate in Spain at 21.8 percent.
Gaspar Llamazares, a medical doctor and deputy from the opposition Izquierda Unida (United Left) party, spoke in Congress in February about the “upsurge” in suicides and stated that “the only factor that can explain it is the crisis.” Those who take their own lives are “workers made desperate by the lack of social security coverage,” he added.
After visiting a number of pharmacies in Málaga, Tierramérica confirmed that the demand for anti-depressant medications is on the rise.
“Sales of anti-depressants have increased by around 10 percent,” said a pharmacy manager with more than a decade of experience in the field. “It has been very noticeable. More people are coming in with doctors’ prescriptions to purchase psychoactive drugs,” concurred a young pharmacist at another drugstore, where she has worked for a year and a half.
Spain is not alone in this epidemic of despair.
In Italy, the financial and economic crisis has contributed to higher rates of suicide and attempted suicide, according to the article “Excess Suicides and Attempted Suicides in Italy Attributable to the Great Recession”, published in August in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.
The article reports on a grassroots protest movement of “widows of the crisis” in the northern Italian city of Bologna, the wives of businessmen, craftsmen and workers who have been driven to suicide by bankruptcy and overwhelming debts.
In Greece, where the suicide rate has always been low compared to the average in Europe, there has also been an upsurge in cases of people who have taken their own lives for reasons related to the crisis.