Slump Causes Suicide Spike

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: The human cost of the economic crisis in Europe is clear enough. Bankruptcy and unemployment, homelessness, mental illness and suicide are all on the rise. The Greek health ministry reports that suicides were up 40% in the first half of this year compared to the same period last year. One case is profiled in today's Wall Street Journal. Marcus Walker wrote the piece about a businessman from the island of Crete.

Marcus Walker: Vaggelis Petrakis was a typical Cretan in some ways. He grew up in the poverty of postwar Crete in a very humble olive growing community in the mountains of the islands. Didn't have much of an education, but soon as he could he moved to town and worked hard and built up his own business over many years. He traded in fruit and vegetables. Bought them from farmers on the island and sold them to supermarkets and above all, to hotels who were part of a booming tourist trade. And he sold local produce such as watermelon, aubergine, eggplant as you'd say, and oranges. And his warehouse was full of such good fresh Cretan produce during the good years.

Mullins: When did things start going bad for him?

Walker: Things really went downhill at around the time of the Greek debt crisis started, which was in late 2009. And it was precipitated by the fact that the Greek state was running out of money and the Greek banks which owned the Greek government bonds were taking heavy losses on those bonds. And so as a result, Greek banks stopped lending to Greek businesses and the whole country fell into recession through the bursting of this credit bubble, and affected everybody -- the hotel trade, the retail trade and wholesalers such as Petrakis.

Mullins: So he had kind of a creative solution. What did he do?

Walker: Yeah, yeah, well, many Greek people took part in this very strange, informal lending system using post-dated checks. And how it worked was basically you would write your supplier -- if you were a hotel you would write your food supplier say -- a post-dated check that couldn't be cashed for say, six months. And then the supplier, in this case, the grocer, Mr. Petrakis, would take this check to a bank because he needed cash now. The bank would buy the check, but at a discount, which meant Petrakis could get money now, but less than he ought to have for his food that he was supplying.

Mullins: So what happened then?

Walker: Well, in his increasing desperation he took part in a clearly illegal scheme. He bought a forged check from an apparently corrupt accountant who he knew. The check was made out in the name of an Athenian company with whom he had no dealings. And he took it to the bank and tried to sell this check to the bank in the normal way. The bank spotted the fake and told the police, and he was arrested. This really seemed to have broken his morale entirely, and he felt his reputation had been ruined by trying this illegal scheme, which was a last ditch effort it seems to keep himself above water.

Mullins: All right, to stay afloat and he was also mislead by people he thought were friends.

Walker: That's right, many of the business relationships he build up over many, many years, including even relatives, it turned out that when the economy went downhill the whole social and human climate became raw and brutal. People stopped paying him and told him that was his problem. He seems to have taken this very badly and people he thought were friends, he fell out with and had arguments with. And this made him increasingly depressed.

Mullins: So what ultimately happened?

Walker: Eventually he after one loud argument with a supplier who claimed that Petrakis owed him money, he got in his car and drove off, and his family called the police and reported a missing person. But the police seemed to have done very little. His family searched for him all night long and in the small hours of the next morning, his wife heard his dog whimpering in an olive grove next to a plot of land that the family owned. And there she found her husband, Mr. Petrakis, who had shot himself in his head with his hunting rifle. And he was still alive when she found him, but he died soon after.

Mullins: Mr. Petrakis fits the profile in many ways despite his individual story of other people who have committed suicide in Greece. Tell us about your conversations with people who work at a telephone helpline in Greece.

Walker: Yes, there's a NGO called Klimaka, in Athens, that runs a national suicide helpline. And psychologists who work there told me that they're taking more and more calls from people who are thinking about suicide. And of course, there are many different kinds of cases and many cases involve many factors, including mental illness, but they say that the growth is coming from people who have severe financial problems. That is where the growth in the number of calls is coming from. And this is something that they haven't really seen before, but the economy is crashing so badly it is causing people to despair because their financial and economic ruin.

Mullins: Marcus Walker is the Europe business correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. His story on Vaggelis Petrakis appears in today's edition of The Wall Street Journal. Thank you very much.

Walker: Thank you.