Human costs of the crisis: Suicide as a permanent answer to a temporary problem?

*This blog post is part of the Jean Monnet Chair of European Media Governance and Integration series


By Izabel Korbiel

With the outbreak of the financial crisis in Europe the material conditions have dramatically changed, we observe social disintegration impoverishment, deterioration of social care and construction of new vulnerabilities. Health professionals, NGOs and researchers have been alerting about unemployment, debt and relationship breakdowns, the everyday reality during the crisis, contributing to a bad state of being and even driving vulnerable individuals to suicide. According to the European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy, John Dalli, Europe is “sleep-walking into a catastrophe” .

Due to the austerity measures major cuts were undertaken in healthcare services. At what price? Social consequences will be long lasting and penetrating for the European community. With high probability Europe will find a way to take control over the financial crisis. The social costs, however, will have to be paid by the future generations. Based on data from 2008 a further increase in drugs abuse, anxiety, despair, use of anti-depressives and requests for abortions are to be expected due to economic reasons. Antonakakis and Collins proved in their research that every 1% fall in government spending in Greece led to a 0.43% rise in suicides among men. They conclude:”These findings have strong implications for policymakers and for health agencies (…) We often talk about the fiscal multiplier effect of austerity, such as what it does to GDP. But what is the health multiplier?  

Photo by Chris Goldberg*

The numbers are alarming: researchers from the University of Oxford linked the financial crisis to over 10,000 suicides since 2008 in Europe and North America. But these economic suicides are not inevitable. Studies show that countries where the state offers social and financial support for people affected by job losses, debts and evictions, i.e. Sweden and Austria, could prevent increasing suicide rates. This is an indicator for need of social action that could help the vulnerable individuals to support the pressure and to be able to see a future for themselves. It is a role of the state to give a framework for agency and self-fulfilment, so restricted via multiple crises in nowadays Europe.

A shocking example of the human costs of economic decisions of the European Union is the agriculture crisis. Hundreds of French farmers committed suicide largely due to financial pressures arising from a crisis in the agriculture industry. European farmers have to face a new situation of falling prices that threaten their existence. The main reason for the tough conditions is the regulatory decision to end milk quotas accompanied by the global trend of declining demand for milk. The Russian embargo only worsened the situation. Activist Jacques Jeffredo reported 600 farmers in France, 500 in Germany and 400 in Belgium and Italy who committed suicide since the deregulation measures. Never before was this profession so much affected.

An act of suicide is a form of radical communication; it remains, however, a taboo and as such an untouchable subject in newsrooms (Richardson 2014). In the light of silencing practice by the media visible in the non-reporting policy, public suicide is an alternative for expression of power by otherwise powerless people (Counts 1980). The suffering body communicates the injustice experienced by the community to a larger audience (Fierke 2013).

It remains within society’s responsibilities to provide care and the conditions for an individual’s wellbeing, including having an individual’s voice heard  even when they commit this ultimate act. The last is the moral duty of the European media. The common praxis of the media, though, is medicalization of the phenomenon and presenting the individual as representing sick dissent that has to be isolated from society in order to protect the public. The actors who consider suicide are victims of disease and as such become patients. Our societies have been led by silent consent to the assumption that suicide is the act of an abnormal individual, who must be a psychopathic person (Zilboorg 1937/1996a in Richardson 2014). We doubt that all the farmers who committed suicide were mentally ill, especially because the agriculture sector has notably the lowest suicide rates of all professions. It is not popular in the media, and may be uncomfortable, to classify suicide as a behaviour that is a matter of ethics and politics. As Szasz (1999) stated: ‘Attributing suicide to mental illness is merely the latest attempt to control and condemn voluntary death by medicalizing it’. Accordingly presenting suicide as a protest whereby the actor rejects being a victim and has power over his own fate becomes unlikely.

Counts, D. A. (1980) Fighting back is not the way: suicide and the women of Kaliai. American Ethnologist, 7(2), pp. 332–351.

Fierke, K. (2013) Political Self-Sacrifice: Agency, Body and Emotion in International Relations. New York: Cambridge University Press

Richardson, G. (2014) (Un)Covering Suicide: The Changing Ethical Norms in Canadian Journalism. Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository. Paper 2278.

Szasz, T. (1999). Fatal freedom: The ethics and politics of suicide. Westport, CT: Praeger.



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