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The Human Cost of Economic Crisis - Warning for Cyprus

depression suicide cyprusThe Cyprus-born philosopher Zeno, founder of Stoicism, decided to commit suicide in 264 BC by holding his breath after he fell and broke his toe, because he believed his quality of life had been destroyed.

His life and the way he chose to end it is just one example of the Greek value of living well. This philosophy is not about extravagant living, or wasting resources, but rather about being able to perceive life in a positive way.

"Happiness is a good flow of life," said Zeno.

But for many Greeks and Cypriots, this flow of life has been dammed by economic crises caused by out-of-control government deficits.

In Greece's case, this year there is a worrying trend as the overall suicide rate has risen to 4 in 100,000 people, from 3 per 100,000 in 2008. Greece used to have the lowest suicide rate in the EU - in warm countries there is plenty of sunshine to ward off mild depression - but now the suicide rate for men has doubled.

The Greek NGO Klimaka says it received 2,500 telephone calls from suicidal people in 2010 and that 26 percent of them were from men aged 40-49 years-old. Around 70 percent of people who called Klimaka's hotline were suffering from depression, which is certainly triggered by stressful life events like losing a job or the inability to keep up with overwhelming debts.

Every three months there is a rise in anxiety as the Greek government panics about receiving its bailout from the IMF and EU, without which it would not be able to pay its obligations. This is such a time, and the press is full of speculation about whether the eight billion euro payment will be made and how much more the Greek people will have to sacrifice to pay off the government's deficit. The general mood led Greek Finance Minister Venizelos to say that the Greek people are exhausted - emotionally and financially.

Warning for Cyprus

In Cyprus, the government has just woken up and passed some economic austerity measures, but most analysts say that they are not enough to ward off further pressure on the economy. And instead of going down, government spending is rising, particularly on its own payroll - at a time when unemployment in the wider economy is rising.

This article is not the place for economic facts and figures, but a time to focus on the human factor. Can Cyprus be facing the same rise in suicides as Greece? As of 2008 Cyprus' suicide rate was 2.4 suicides per 100,000 people, a very low figure.

These figures come from a mental health conference held in the EU, but they are the last statistics easily available. The Ministry of Health said it does not have any further information, and nor does the Cyprus Medical Association.

According to psychologist Thekla Petridou, the risk of suicide has definitely risen in Cyprus because of financial problems suffered by families and businesses, but she estimates that most suicides are not reported by the families for fear that the Orthodox Church will not give them a proper burial.

"If there are 10 suicides, only two will be reported as suicide," she says.

She speaks anectdotally about cases she knows of in which suicides were reported as accidents; a system which makes suicide into a taboo subject. This is particularly dangerous because depression is a treatable condition and if warning signs were taken seriously, suicide could be avoided. The Orthodox Church's policy, while understandable considering its position that life is sacred, is paradoxically covering up the real problem and could be leading to more suicides.

Men are significantly more vulnerable to suicide than women because of their social role as family providers. Women usually go to their fathers for financial help, adding to the pressure that men feel to provide for their family's financial stability. It is not acceptable for men to talk about financial problems, says Mrs. Petridou.

"In previous decades it was taboo to talk about sex. In this decade, it is a taboo to talk about money," she says.

Cyprus has very high depression rates, as high as northern European countries Norway and Finland because after the war there was great importance placed on money and other material things, she says. This focus on material rewards results in a kind of pronounced nihilism which has prevailed since the 1974 war.  

"If you only believe in money and the money is gone, your value system collapses," says Mrs. Petridou.

Her advice to people suffering through financial difficulties is to see a therapist in one of the state hospitals because the consultations are free. According to the warning signs of major depression which can lead to suicide are fatigue or loss of energy every day, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, impaired concentration and indecisiveness, insomnia or excess sleeping, markedly diminished interest in everyday activities (anhedonia), restlessness or excessive slowness in movement, and recurring thoughts of death.

"Be alert, especially for men and single mothers. Men will feel more comfortable speaking to another man," she says.

President of the Mental Health Commission Neophytos Neophytou said that he is conducting a survey of psychologists and psychiatrists to gain insights into whether the economic crisis is affecting rates of depression and suicide. The survey will be ready in mid-November. Meanwhile, he said he has noticed that in general, patients who were stable are going through relapses amid financial problems.

Although the rate of depression is higher in women than in men, it is men who are more vulnerable to suicide. In Zeno's day and age, physical fitness may have been prized as the best quality in life, but these days, it is financial fitness that is valued. Still, there is another philosophy that can be applied - with all due respect to the Stoics. That is the golden mean, or balance. Avoiding excessive reliance on one thing or another can mean a more balanced perspective and an understanding that there is a time for everything and everything passes - even economic problems. 


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