On Christmas Eve, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny paid a graveside tribute to an ally who helped bring him to power amid the worst economic crisis in Ireland’s modern history.
Shane McEntee was a “true friend and confidante, who listened to other people’s problems and made them his own,” Kenny said in his speech, after 3,000 people attended the funeral of the food minister. Three days earlier, McEntee had taken his own life. He was 56 with four children.
While financial hardship has led to a spate of suicides in parts of austerity-hit Europe, the deaths of McEntee and the son of well-known restaurant owners less than a week later have turned the national spotlight onto the issue in Ireland.
Since the end of the Celtic Tiger era in 2007, the number of people taking their own lives has risen by about 15 percent, and that figure only includes those officially recorded as such in a country where suicide historically was taboo. Over the same period, the economy contracted by 11 percent as banks collapsed, while the jobless rate tripled to almost 15 percent.
“Unemployment and financial problems can be a trigger event, especially in the course of a very speedy recession,” said Ella Arensman, director of the National Suicide Research Foundation in Cork. “Paradoxically, as the problems worsen, austerity means we have less to spend on prevention.”
It’s hard to tell how much of a role the economy has played, according to Arensman, who said there’s a “complex” mix of factors behind the increase. The two biggest underlying causes are alcohol abuse and depression.
In McEntee’s case, his brother placed at least some of the blame on pressure through social media, after defending the spending cuts in the 2013 budget, when the government reduced money for respite care for the disabled.
“Shame on you people, you faceless cowards who sent him horrible messages on the website and text,” Gerry McEntee said at the funeral, according to comments cited by broadcaster RTE.
While the minister was in his 50s, statistics show a much larger increase in cases of suicide among men under 30. The level of self-harm in that group has risen by about a third since 2007, the height of the economic boom, according to the suicide research foundation.
“What we can say is that a speedy recession exposes the vulnerable,” said Arensman.
Three days after McEntee’s funeral, Andrew Clarke, the 16-year son of one of Ireland’s best-known restaurateurs, took his own life. Initial media reports indicated he had died after his Volkswagen Jetta fell on him while he was working on it.
His parents, Derry and Sallyanne, who run the Michelin-starred L’Ecrivain restaurant in Dublin, disclosed that it hadn’t been the case after his funeral on Jan. 5.
“For the four days our son lay in a coma we prayed and hoped for a miracle, and if he survived we didn’t want him to be stigmatized by his actions in a moment of madness,” they said in an e-mailed statement released on Jan. 12. “It was not our intention to mislead; we were, and remain, so very distraught.”
It’s a plight becoming increasingly familiar to the families of young Irish men. Between 2000 and 2007, as Ireland’s economy outpaced the rest of Europe, the total number of suicides fell 12 percent to 458 cases. By 2011, the latest figures available, the number had risen to 525, or about 11.5 per 100,000, up from about 10.3 in 2007.
To an extent, that may understate the problem. In some incidents where open verdicts were recorded at death inquests, there were similarities with cases of self-harm based on psychological and social characteristics, indicating hidden suicides, according to Arensman.
Ireland is on a par with European averages. Among men under 30, Ireland is the fifth-highest in the European Union, according to the World Health Organization. Other countries bearing the brunt of austerity measures amid Europe’s debt crisis have also been affected.
In Spain, the government said on Nov. 9 it would speed measures aimed at ending evictions after a woman committed suicide as officials tried to remove her from her home for defaulting on the mortgage.
A Greek former deputy interior minister was found dead in a suspected suicide in October, while in April a retired pharmacist shot himself in the head near the parliament in Athens. A note he left blamed economic hardship.
In the U.K., suicides per 100,000 people jumped to 11.8 in 2011 from 11.1 a year before, the Office for National Statistics said yesterday. It was the highest rate for males since 2002.
Back in Cork, Arensman sifted through 190 cases of suicides in the course of her research. Some 38 percent were unemployed. A third had worked in construction, the part of the economy that has suffered the biggest collapse since the downturn.
The recession has had a “massive impact,” said Paul Kelly, who set up support service Console in 2002 after a family member died through suicide.
“I was speaking to a woman who said her home was going to be repossessed, the family car was already repossessed by the bank and her children were distraught while her husband was burying his head in the sand,” Kelly said in an interview. “She said she didn’t see a way out.”
Funding for prevention has also suffered, he said. Kelly said the government reduced its subsidy for Console, by about 7 percent over the last four years.
“We’ve seen cuts in our funding for the last few years, even as demand for our services has increased, so the crash has hit us in every way,” said Kelly. “We’ve dealt with builders and developers who saw everything collapse around them. They don’t see a future; they just see disaster ahead.”
More is being done in healthier economies to tackle mental illness. The rate of suicide in Germany dropped 15 percent between 1999 and 2011 following a campaign that included limiting access to toxic substances and bridges, according to Arensman. The program also included training for health-care workers and raising public awareness.
While some signs are emerging that that worst of the economic collapse is over in Ireland, unemployment is still at 14.6 percent, close to the highest level since the 1980s. One in four mortgages is in trouble, according to the central bank.
At the funeral of his minister and friend, Prime Minister Kenny asked people to be aware of the “capacity of a kind word to change, comfort or heal,” he said. “Goodbye Shane. I shall see you further on up the road.”