LONDON (Reuters) - Suicides rates rose sharply in Europe in 2007 to 2009 as the financial crisis drove unemployment up and squeezed incomes, with the worst hit countries like Greece and Ireland seeing the most dramatic increases, researchers said on Friday.
But rates of road deaths in the region fell during the same period, possibly because higher numbers of jobless people led to lower car use, according to an initial analysis of data from 10 European Union (EU) countries.
"Even though we're starting to see signs of a financial recovery, what we're now also seeing is a human crisis. There's likely to be a long tail of human suffering following the downturn," said David Stuckler, a sociologist at Britain's Cambridge University, who worked on the analysis.
Stuckler, Martin McKee of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and Sanjay Basu of the University of California San Francisco published their initial analysis in the Lancet journal and said the data "reveal the rapidity of the health consequences of financial crises."
Stuckler said in a telephone interview the researchers did not yet have enough data to make a worthwhile estimate of how many deaths in total could be linked to the financial crisis, but that is something they plan to do in future work.
"In particular, we want to understand better why some individuals, communities, and entire societies are especially vulnerable, yet some seem more resilient to economic shocks," the researchers wrote.
Stuckler said he feared the social and health costs of the recent global economic downturn would turn out to be high.
"We can already see that the countries facing the most severe financial reversals of fortune, such as Greece and Ireland, had greater rises in suicides," he said.
"And suicides are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of mental health problems. Suicide itself is a relatively rare event, but wherever you see a rise in suicides there is also a rise in failed suicide attempts and in new cases of depression."
Analyzing data available so far, Stuckler and colleagues found that suicide rates were up 17 percent in Greece and 13 percent in Ireland. Unemployment increased by 2.6 percentage points -- a 35 percent relative increase -- between 2007 and 2009 across the EU as a whole, they said.
"The steady downward trend in suicide rates, seen...before 2007, reversed at once," the researchers wrote.
In 2008 the increase in suicide rates in new EU members states studied -- those like Hungary and Lithuania, which joined after 2004 -- was less than 1 percent, but in the older members it increased by almost 7 percent.
And in both, suicides increased further in 2009.
Among the 10 countries studied -- Austria, Britain, Finland, Greece, Ireland, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia and Romania -- only Austria had fewer suicides in 2009 than in 2007, with the rate down 5 percent. In all of the other countries, the increase was at least 5 percent.
In Britain suicide rates rose from a recent low of 6.14 per 100,000 people aged under 65 in 2007, to 6.75 in 2008 -- an increase of 10 percent, and remained similarly high in 2009.
Stuckler said that overall, the higher death rates from suicides appeared to be balanced out by the lower fatalities on the roads, which fell substantially, especially in new EU member countries where they were initially very high.