By Erik Kirschbaum
ATHENS (Reuters) - On Monday, a 38-year-old geology lecturer hanged himself from a lamp post in Athens and on the same day a 35-year-old priest jumped to his death off his balcony in northern Greece. On Wednesday, a 23-year-old student shot himself in the head.
In a country that has had one of the lowest suicide rates in the world, a surge in the number of suicides in the wake of an economic crisis has shocked and gripped the Mediterranean nation - and its media - before a May 6 election.
The especially grisly death of pharmacist Dimitris Christoulas, who shot himself in the head on a central Athens square because of poverty brought on by the crisis that has put millions out of work, was by far the most dramatic.
Before shooting himself during morning rush hour on April 4 on Syntagma Square across from the Greek parliament building, the 77-year-old pensioner took a moment to jot down a note.
"I see no other solution than this dignified end to my life so I don't find myself fishing through garbage cans for sustenance," wrote Christoulas, who has since become a national symbol of the austerity-induced pain that is squeezing millions.
Greek media have since reported similar suicides almost daily, worsening a sense of gloom going into next week's election, called after Prime Minister Lucas Papademos's interim government completed its mandate to secure a new rescue deal from foreign creditors by cutting spending further.
Some medical experts say this form of political suicide is a reflection of the growing despair and sense of helplessness many feel. But others warn the media may be amplifying the crisis mood with its coverage and numbers may only be up slightly.
"The crisis has triggered a growing sense of guilt, a loss of self-esteem and humiliation for many Greeks," Nikos Sideris, a leading psychoanalyst and author in Athens, told Reuters.
"Greek people don't want to be a burden to anyone and there's this growing sense of helplessness. Some develop an attitude of self-hatred and that leads to self-destruction. That's what's behind the increase in suicide and attempted suicide. We're seeing a whole new category: political suicides."
Police said the geology lecturer, Nikos Polyvos, who hanged himself, was distraught because a teaching job offer had been blocked due to a blanket hiring freeze in the public sector.
NATION IN SHOCK
Experts say the numbers are relatively low - less than about 600 per year. But increases in suicides, attempted suicides, the use of anti-depressant medication and the need for psychiatric care are causing alarm in a nation unaccustomed to the problems.
Before the financial crisis began wreaking havoc in 2009, Greece had one of the lowest suicide rates in the world - 2.8 per 100,000 inhabitants. There was a 40 percent rise in suicides in the first half of 2010, according to the Health Ministry.
There are no reliable statistics on 2011 but experts say Greece's suicide rate has probably doubled to about 5 per 100,000. That is still far below levels of 34 per 100,000 seen in Finland or 9 per 100,000 in Germany. Attempted suicides and demand for psychiatric help has risen as Greece struggles to cope with the worst economic crisis since World War Two.
Nikiforos Angelopoulos, a professor of psychiatry, has a busy psychotherapy practice in an upmarket Athens neighborhood. He said the crisis has exacerbated the problems for some already less stable people and estimates that about five percent of his patients have developed problems due to the crisis.
"We're a nation in shock," he said, even though he suspected that it was the media coverage of suicides that had increased dramatically rather than the actual numbers of suicides. He nevertheless says the crisis is behind a notable rise in mental health problems in Greece.
"I had one patient who came in with a severe depression - he owns a furniture making company that got into financial trouble and he had to lay off 20 of his 100 workers," he said. "He couldn't sleep and couldn't eat because of that. He said his good business was being ruined and he couldn't cope anymore."
The furniture maker spent four months in therapy and was also helped by anti-depressants, Angelopoulos said.
"He's better now. He realized what happened just happened. But there are many others who are unstable or psychotic to begin with and the crisis is increasing their anxiety and insecurity."
Angelopoulos, 60, has also suffered himself because about 20 percent of his patients can no longer afford his 100 euro ($130) per hour sessions. Some have asked for a half-price discount while others tell him they simply can't afford to pay anything.
"I never turn people away," he said. "If a patient says to me 'I have no money', I couldn't tell them to go away. I tell them okay you don't have to pay now but remember me later."
There are several possible explanations for Greece's low suicide rate that go beyond the fact that the country has an abundance of sunshine and balmy weather.
To avoid stigmatizing their families, some suicidal Greeks deliberately crash their cars, which police often charitably report as accidents. Families often try to cover up a suicide so their loved ones can be buried because the Greek Orthodox church refuses to officiate at burials of people who commit suicide.
Another important factor behind the low suicide rate is that Greeks have extremely close knit families as well as a highly communicative and expressive culture.
"Greece is a country where everyone will talk to you," said Sideris, the Athens psychoanalyst. "You'll always find someone to share your suffering with and someone's always there to help.
"It's not only the good weather. It's the powerful network of support that has made the suicide rate in Greece so low. It's still there but this crisis is still too much for some people."
Many Greeks have also not lost their sense of humor.
Dimitris Nikolopoulos, a 37-year-old salesman, laughed at the idea that the suicide rate was so low because Greeks are well-adjusted and a generally happy people.
"Greeks used to be very happy people because we were living off money that didn't belong to us," he said with a wry smile. "But sometimes you have to face reality. It wasn't our money."
($1 = 0.7542 euros)
(Additional reporting by Renee Maltezou; editing by Elizabeth Piper)