‘Social emergency’: Why is Spain’s suicide rates at record highs?

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More Spaniards took their own life in 2022 than in any other year since records began. But why?

Just one month after Spain set up its first suicide prevention helpline in May 2022, its workers handled nearly 15,000 calls, according to data from the Ministry of Health.

The flood of calls demonstrated the need for help in a society which can still treat mental health as a taboo. But, with many Spaniards pushed to the limit by the COVID pandemic, the topic has forced itself into public debate.

Although measures such as the helpline were introduced to try and curb rising suicides in the country, things aren’t getting better. 

Spain reported in 2022 the highest number of suicides since records began. 

More than 4,097 people took their own lives, 2.3% more than in 2021. The numbers published annually by the National Statistics Institute point to an upward trend since 2018.

“It is a real social emergency, reversing the trend should be a matter of state,” Andoni Anseán, president of the Spanish Foundation for Suicide Prevention, told Euronews.

A lack of national plan, shortage of specialised health personnel in the health system and little follow-up for people who have attempted suicide are the problems highlighted by experts.

But is this enough to explain why suicide is rising in the southern European country?

Older people at risk

While mortality rates from illnesses have reduced – as their treatments have improved – suicide rates continue to grow.

According to the president of the Spanish Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the official figures may not show the reality of the country, since more deaths occur than the ones that are actually reported in the official data.

This is why elements of the study of suicide remain a mystery in Spain.

Alejandro de la Torre, a member of the Centre for Biomedical Research Network – Mental Health, conducted one of the latest studies to be published in the country on the evolution of suicide mortality data over the last 20 years.

The researcher detected two of the most common profiles.

“The first is a very premeditated and depressive group of people. They have been thinking about taking their own life for a long time and tend to leave everything tied up, including writing a farewell note”.

“The second group is the impulsive one. These are people who, when they have very intense emotions, go over the edge and consider that they will lower the level of emotionality through a suicide attempt,” adds de la Torre.

Reviewing the statistics by age group, the psychologist found that the older the age group, the greater the risk.

The group comprising Spaniards over 40 years is equivalent to half of those who committed suicide.

More than 13.8% were between 25 and 39 years old, while only 5% of all suicides were committed by young people between 10 and 24 years old.

“Young people are the ones who think most about taking their own lives and try to do so. However, the most successful are older people,” explains de la Torre.

These figures could stem from a failure of preventive action and lack of support from the public health system, according to the experts.

“Having a first psychological consultation is not a problem, but managing to get more appointments is. You might be able to get a first medical appointment within five days, but then it can take months for the next one,” says Anseán.

“If it’s a problem of anxiety or depression they may even give the patient an appointment for next year,” he adds.

Is Hungary Europe’s example?

Interestingly enough, Europe looks to Hungary when it comes to suicide prevention. 

The country has managed, over the years, to reverse the trend and reduce the number of suicides in the country.

Hungary had the highest suicide rate in the world until 1992. From then on, the figure began to stabilise and from 2000 until now it has halved from 3,269 this year to 1,561 in 2021.

A study published in BMC Psychiatry states the Eastern European country is a success story.

They pointed to an overhaul in the health system that involved increasing the number of psychologists – from 95 to 139 in each department – and creating more suicide prevention helplines.

This is one of Spain’s main problems, according to experts. 

“We are far below the European ratios regarding health professionals. The first three months after a suicide attempt is considered to be the most critical period. This is why we need more psychologists and psychiatrists to carry out the appropriate follow-ups,” says de la Torre.

The expert stresses that in relation to Europe, Spain does not have such high levels of suicide mortality.

“The country stands at 8.4 per 100,000 inhabitants, while in Scandinavian countries it is close to 11 per 100,000 inhabitants”.

However, what is really worrying for de la Torre is that these rates have not yet been able to be curbed.


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