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Baltics: Suicide Rates In Transition States Among World's Highest

The suicide rate in the Baltic states is the highest in Europe and one of the highest in the world. The rate has nearly doubled over the last decade. Why are so many people in newly independent Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania choosing to take their own lives?

Prague, 9 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Recent statistics indicate that the Baltic state of Lithuania now has the highest suicide rate in Europe, and possibly in the world. According to the state statistics department, 1,533 Lithuanians committed suicide last year, accounting for nearly 4 percent of deaths overall.

Looking at the figure another way, last year's rate breaks down to 44 suicides per every 100,000 people in Lithuania. In other countries in the region, suicide rates, while slightly lower, are still significantly higher than the global average of 16 suicides per 100,000 people. In Russia last year, 39 of every 100,000 people ended their own lives. In Latvia and Estonia, the numbers were 34 and 33, respectively. In Hungary, the number was 32.

By contrast, the United States -- with a population of 281 million -- has about 31,000 sucides a year, a rate of approximately 11 per 100,000 people. Britain also had 11 suicides per 100,000 in 2000.

In Scandinavia, where suicides are more frequent, recent rates are still significantly lower than those in the Baltic states. Finland, which has the highest suicide rate of the Scandinavian states, had nearly 30 suicides per 100,000 in 1998.

Although researchers say that suicide is more frequent in certain pockets of Russia -- for example, Arkhangelsk, where rates can rise by as much as three times -- Lithuania's overall rate remains higher.

Danute Gailiene, a professor at Vilnius University, has written two books on the topic of suicide. She says rates in Lithuania, which began recording suicide statistics in 1924, remained quite low for several decades -- between five and nine suicides per every 100,000 people. Following a sharp increase in the early 1960s, the numbers once again dropped during the perestroika years of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, which coincided with the Baltic independence movement and a growing sense of optimism.

Once the Baltics gained independence in 1991, however, suicide deaths again began to rise. In Lithuania, they reached their peak in 1996, when 1,723 of the country's 3.5 million people ended their own lives -- 49 people per every 100,000.

Gailiene notes certain patterns in suicides in Lithuania. A vast majority of suicides are men -- last year, some 82 percent of the country's deaths by suicide were male. And, like elsewhere in the Baltics, suicides are more common in rural areas, where a lack of agricultural reforms has left nearly a quarter of the Lithuanian population with no economic prospects or hope. "The most typical suicide is a middle-aged -- between 40 and 60 years old -- Lithuanian male living in the countryside. As a rule, he is a hard-drinking person."

Gailiene says between 50 and 70 percent of suicides in Lithuania are committed under the influence of alcohol. The drop in suicides during the Gorbachev era is due in part to the sweeping restrictions on alcohol sales at the time.

Elmars Rancans, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Latvian Academy of Sciences, says the patterns witnessed in suicides in Lithuania are common throughout the Baltics. In Latvia, he says, the suicide rate peaked in 1993 with 42 deaths per 100,000 people, but have been declining slowly ever since.

Airi Varnik, the head of the Estonian-Swedish Institute of Suicidology, tells RFE/RL that suicide rates in Estonia reached a peak of 41 suicides per 100,000 people in 1994 -- nearly twice the rate it was just six years earlier. Since then, the suicide rate has been on a steady decline in Estonia.

Varnik says that, like elsewhere in the Baltics, the majority of suicide cases involve alcohol, and a majority of suicides are men. In Estonia, she adds, the female suicide rate is only slightly higher than in the European Union: "The fluctuation of suicide rates [between Europe and the Baltics] concerns men only. Female suicide rates are almost the same everywhere in Europe, but [here] the male suicide rate is very high -- four to five times higher than female rates."

Varnik attributes the wide gender gap to the fact that it is men who feel ultimately responsible for their families and for the uncertain fate of their countries. She adds that it is traditionally harder for males to accept that there are problems they cannot solve.

Despite a slight drop in Lithuania's suicide rate last year, Gailiene of Vilnius University says there is no clear indication that her country is experiencing a true decline in suicides like Estonia and Latvia. She says the high suicide rate is due to disappointment at the harsh reality that has followed in the wake of independence. "People are not able to readjust psychologically to the changes that are taking place and to new life. It is what we call a social shock, caused by disintegration of former patterns of life. And at the same time, there is not enough support for those in trouble from state institutions and from society."

She adds, however that it is possible to help many people considering suicide. She says, "The biggest problem is that people think suicide is a normal part of everyday life and don't want to do anything to change the situation -- to do something to help a depressed neighbor who says he doesn't want to live anymore." She adds that Lithuanians are too tolerant of alcoholism and see it as a normal aspect of life rather than a dangerous illness that needs to be treated.