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Lithuania Takes the Dubious Honor of Having Highest Suicide Rate in World

By LEYLA ALYANAK Earth Times News Service, VILNIUS, Lithuania

This tiny former Soviet republic on the shores of the Baltic Sea has acquired a dubious distinction: It has the highest suicide rate in the world. Suicides have increased steadily since independence in 1990, especially among young men (up 195 percent) and women aged 50 to 59 (up 106 percent). In 1996 the suicide rate hit an all-time high of 46.4 per 100,000 people before settling at 44 in 1997. These figures compare with 38 per 100,000 in Russia, 34 in Estonia, 33 in Hungary, 20 in Switzerland, seven in Spain, and three in Greece.

According to one specialized report on suicide, more people kill themselves in Lithuania each day (four to five) than die in traffic accidents. But these figures are relatively new and suicide has never been a traditional characteristic here. Before World War II, suicide rates in Lithuania were far below those of many other Eastern European countries. Now, the Baltic States, with Lithuania up front, are leading the pack. "Suicide cannot be explained using only individual reasons," said Dr. Danute Gailiene, a psychologist and specialist in social issues. "It is the consequence of a complex process." That process includes decades of Soviet domination, a dramatic transition period, the amount of media coverage given to suicides, and a certain perceived helplessness toward all of the above. These factors are intensified by the absence of a national suicide prevention strategy and a lack of in-depth research into the problem of suicide. Experts say radical reforms in Lithuanian society have brought about a crisis in values, while growing economic unease has combined with increasing psychological and social insecurity and feelings of helplessness. Still, they cannot pinpoint specific causes. Dr. Gailiene, writing in Lithuania's 1999 Human Development Report, places part of the blame on the mass media.

Between 1991-1994, she said, media coverage of suicides increased 20-fold. Few facts were spared from articles in the newly unmuzzled press, which described successful suicides in searing detail. Conversely, few column inches were devoted to suicide prevention. Little was known about "danger signals" and how to respond to them. In reaction to the brazen media coverage of the early post-independence years, Lithuania has elaborated new guidelines for reporting suicides. This, government officials hope, will help cut back on the copycat effect. The editorial guidelines try to demystify suicide, steering clear of sensationalism and treating the issue like any other news item. Rather than gory details, the government suggests covering the psychological motives behind the act. It also encourages the dissemination of helpful information such as alternatives to suicide and how to seek help.

While there are no reliable figures on the impact of these guidelines, this "ultimate solution" is clearly a reflection of the wider ills Lithuanians face in their transition from Communism. Their lives have been turned upside down yet psychological support is virtually nonexistent, especially in rural areas, where the rate is highest. People with problems are left to fend for themselves. "On the one hand there is a lack of resources, which does not allow for the rapid establishment, development and maintenance of an effective system of psychosocial support. On the other is the inadequate understanding of the importance of the psychological health of the population by politicians," Dr. Gailiene said. Experts say that more information is needed about prevention strategies, with greater emphasis placed on crisis management and rehabilitation.

According to a study on suicides by the Estonian-Swedish Suicidology Institute, socioeconomic disruptions in nearby Estonia are key factors affecting suicides and also cause depression and anxiety. In Lithuania, these factors appear to have an even stronger effect. The country is feeling the brunt of transition policies and its demographic indicators are being affected. In 1970 the number of children exceeded the number of old people by 82 percent; by 1997 the gap had narrowed to 16 percent. In 1990 there were 9.8 marriages per 1,000, but in 1997 that figure had fallen to 5.1. Child illness is up by 26 percent since 1994, and in 1996 health care accounted for only 4.5 percent of GDP. More than a third of households consider themselves poor, and between 1989 and 1996 average real wages dropped by 35 percent. The country's social and economic fabric has been stretched to the limit.

Alcohol policies have also contributed to anxiety, depression and even hopelessness. Under the Soviet system, liberal alcohol laws were tightened by the Gorbachev administration, and consumption fell significantly during the 1980s. Those restrictions are no longer in place and, as a result, drunkenness is again quite common. On sunny days in Lithuania's cities and villages, small groups of unemployed men and women gather on street corners and gulp down low-cost liquor. If and when the liquor runs out, they too might be pushed to consider options, perhaps even final ones. Copyright 1999 The Earth Times All rights reserved.


A Gallup International poll showed Lithuanians were the most pessimistic people among 62 nations polled, with 53 percent of the country believing the year 2000 would be worse than the year 1999.


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