Are Italians too proud to be depressed?

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The wave of suicides in Italy is showing no sign of abating. Photo: fakelvis/Flickr
10:48 CET+01:00
A wave of suicides in Italy is showing no signs of abating as the economic crisis tightens its grip and people feel increasingly despondent about their future. But do the official numbers belie the reality, and are Italians too proud to seek help? The Local explores.

As Italy’s unemployment rate rises, so do cases of suicide.

Figures released earlier this month revealed that 119 people took their lives between January and October, a 40 percent increase on the same period in 2012. Meanwhile, the number of attempted suicides reached 59 during the first 10 months of the year, according to the study by LinkLab, the centre of socio-economic research at Link Campus University in Rome.

People mostly committed suicide because of “spiralling debts” and “sudden loss of employment”.

Most of the cases were among businessmen from an area of Italy where jobs and opportunities are usually more plentiful: the north, and in particular the traditionally wealthier region of Veneto.

Veneto, the home of Venice and a driver of Italy’s economic growth in the 1990s thanks to its wine exports and manufacturing, is a region where the perception of the “bella figura” (good reputation) is still very much alive, Tom Dollard, an American businessman who has lived in Paderno del Grappa, a small town near Treviso, for over 30 years, tells The Local.

Dollard has witnessed the dramatic turnaround in the region’s fortunes and the impact it is having on the psyche of its proud inhabitants, many of whom turned small family holdings into once-thriving businesses.

He says he hears of at least two suicides a month in areas surrounding Treviso.

“Until the 1950s, the people here were pretty low class, then the boom happened in the 1960s and somehow business became successful over the next 20 to 30 years,” he says.

“That boom continued up until seven or eight years ago. There were jobs for all, there was no unemployment. The biggest complaint at the time was that there were ‘too many foreigners’ coming in to do the factory jobs.”

Those fortunes were gradually eroded by a fall in industrial orders, competition from China and then a tightening of bank credit.

Dollard says that when the crisis hit, the Venetians “didn’t have the substance to handle it, to adapt”.

“They had a culture of working that was obsessive and so those who weren’t flexible didn’t do well in the crisis,” he adds.

“They absolutely refused to admit failure, people kept everything inside.”

The suicides he has heard of are mostly among men, with an average age of 45. Saddled with debt, they usually ran their own businesses.

“You hear stories about them starting the day as normal, heading out to work, going for coffee...and then hanging themselves or throwing themselves in front of a train.”

Though the phenomenon might be more acute in the north, there is a similar pattern across the rest of Italy.

On Thursday morning, a man set himself alight on St Peter’s Square in Rome, although it has not yet been confirmed that this was a suicide attempt.

Carlo Cipolli, a professor in psychology at the University of Bologna, tells The Local that many Italians grow up with the idea that to be in a dire financial situation is “dishonourable”.

“They’re in debt, or they can’t pay their taxes, but they’re too embarrassed to talk about their problems to their family, friends and even their doctor,” says Cipolli.

Cipolli says the situation tends to be worse in small towns, where people have closely-linked networks and “don’t want to lose their sense of pride”. 

“They don’t want to admit they are in difficulty, and so they keep it all inside. They feel abandoned, and very isolated.”

That isolation can also be felt in big cities such as Milan and Turin, adds Cipolli, where many southerners migrate for work, leaving family behind.

“These people have worked hard all their lives, and see no other way other than suicide.”

A recent paper by researchers at Rome’s Sapienza University assessed the link between the economic crisis and suicide.

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It found that suicide rates for employed men aged between 25 and 64 “started to increase in 2008 after a period of a statistically significant decrease from 1994 to 2007” and that “their suicide rate was 12 percent higher in 2010 compared with that in 2006”.

In contrast, suicide rates declined for women of all ages and for men younger than 25 and older than 65 years of age.

As Italy continues to be mired in its longest recession since World War II, the researchers concluded that “monitoring suicide deaths is of paramount importance and, when suicide rates increase, more screening of vulnerable individuals should be undertaken and appropriate interventions provided”.

They called on the government to adopt policies that include aid for those experiencing economic difficulties, ensuring that basic needs are provided for, as well as to implement a national strategy that “could prepare a country to face both the present economic recession and future economic crises.” 

Government policy aside, Cipolli says the biggest challenge is breaking the stigma of depression among Italians, and especially men. Professional help is often the only viable way out, but it’s a route few people choose due to feelings of shame.

“The help is there but it needs to be strengthened,” he adds.

“People don’t really take tablets for depression, they see it as a sign of being weak. The country needs to work on breaking the taboo that depression is something to be ashamed of."

If you are feeling suicidal or know of someone who needs help, click here to find a crisis centre anywhere in the world.

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