The austerity measures in Europe have claimed another fatality. On Wednesday morning a 77 year old man shot himself in Athens’ Syntagma Square. The man, Dimitris Christoulas, left a note saying that because the Greek government had slashed his pension, “I see no other solution than this dignified end to my life, so I don’t find myself fishing through garbage cans for my sustenance.” Since the suicide, there have been riots in Athens.
Greece used to have one of the lowest suicide rates in Europe, but the numbers have been rising in recent months as the country struggles to get a grip over its financial difficulties. The number of calls to the Athens suicide helpline in 2011 was twice the number of calls received in 2010, and other statistics further explain the desperation of Greece. Almost half of young people are out of work, close to 30% of Greeks are at risk of poverty or social exclusion, and there has been a 25% increase in poverty over the last three years. Suicides in Athens rose over 25% last year.
Christoulas was not the first Greek to kill himself because of the effects of the financial crisis, and he will not be the last. However, the public setting of the suicide and the tone of the note will likely make Christoulas a symbol of Greek austerity for some time. Already the scene of Christoulas’ death has become something of a shrine.
Greece is not the only country where suicides and depression are on the rise. In Sicily, a 78-year-old woman leapt from a three-floor balcony after having her pension cut. In northern Italy, a 58-year-old businessman and a 27-year-old immigrant both tried to kill themselves by setting themselves alight in two separate incidents.
The technocratic Italian government is currently trying to implement measures that will stop Italy following in Greece’s steps. Greece has had to implement austerity measures and spending cuts in order to remain eligible for financial aid from international bodies such as the IMF and ECB.
Yet, despite the measures Greece is implementing it is looking increasingly likely that Greece will have to leave the eurozone in order to keep the currency feasible. Public debt as a percentage of GDP is 127.8%. Every Greek is in $34,103 of debt. Debt on this scale cannot be solved with taxpayer-funded bailouts, especially when it is not the only country in Europe facing similar crises.
It is natural that in the wake of Christoulas’ suicide there will be attribution of blame. It is grossly unfair that an elderly man should be driven to such a tragic act when he by all account behaved responsibly in his own business. Unfortunately, there is no one single person who can be blamed for the disappearance of Christoulas’ pension. Rather, years and years of institutionalized irresponsibility and stupidity on the part of European policy makers and politicians are what led to this tragic outcome. Yesterday’s suicide is a somber reminder of the severity of the crisis, something that can sometimes get lost in all of the political rhetoric.