Austerity and euro crisis see suicides increase
by Silvana Enculescu
Discussion of the economic crisis is dominated by dry statistics but austerity is having a real impact on people lives – with homelessness and suicide on the rise, says mental health organisation
One of the main characteristics of the current financial crisis is an obsession with number crunching. Concerned by the data, many European Union governments have launched austerity plans that have forced rising numbers of people into joblessness, and pushed many into poverty.
The devastating effect that these measures have had on families and communities is now becoming increasingly clear: a rise in homelessness is sweeping across Europe and could likely lead to an increase in suicides.
Studies show that for every 1 per cent rise in the unemployment rate, there is a 0.8 per cent rise in the rate of suicides. The Greek National Centre of Social Solidarity reports that the percentage of people seeking help for food and shelter has doubled, and the number of people who are unable to cover their living costs increased significantly. In the United Kingdom, homelessness is reported to have risen by 25 per cent since 2009.
Naturally, becoming homeless takes a serious toll on a person's mental health. At the same time, people with existing mental health problems are more vulnerable to losing their homes, as studies show that such illnesses are one of the most important causes of homelessness. In most EU countries, more than half of the homeless population suffers from serious mental health problems.
This rate is significantly higher in young people, aged 16-24, who are either homeless or living in temporary accommodation. A study from South Wales discovered that among the young homeless, 93 per cent met the criteria for a mental health problem, with the most common diagnosis being depression, among 43 per cent, followed by post-traumatic stress disorder, among 35.5 per cent, and psychosis among 21.5 per cent.
What is more, homeless people are more likely to complete suicide than the general population. In Denmark, homeless men were found to be 7.3 times more likely to take their own lives than the general population, and homeless women were an astonishing 14.8 times more likely to do so. Other UK research states that the prevalence rates of suicide in the homeless population range from 1-3 per cent, compared to approximately 0.0001 per cent in the general population.
As World Suicide Prevention Day is celebrated in September, it only seems fitting that Mental Health Europe, along with the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless, reminded European governments and EU institutions that suicides are about people, not numbers. The helplessness and desperation felt by a person willing to take their own life is unquantifiable, and real action must be taken to ensure that all people have their most basic needs met, such as a stable home, in times of crisis or otherwise.
European governments and institutions must get serious about combating suicide through targeted campaigns aimed at the most excluded members of society. Creating an EU Action Plan on Homelessness that includes a comprehensive mental health perspective should be a priority, along with preventing suicides by ensuring that affordable and adequate housing is available to all.
There are many reasons people become homeless, but most can be mitigated by social safety nets, and by a real commitment to improving the lives of the most vulnerable. If we are to talk numbers, by 2020 suicides are estimated to contribute more than 2 per cent to the global burden of disease. Surely, in a cash-strapped Europe dependent on healthy workers, that ought to prompt some response.
Silvana Enculescu is communications manager at Mental Health Europe