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Austerity syndrome: Suicides are only the first symptom

Forget the economic news.  The health news from Greece is far more grim.  Drug companies aren’t supplying basic medicines.  Hospitals are turning away patients needing surgery.  Suicides are up 40%.

Some of the health effects of austerity are obvious.  Hospitals close, the sick are denied care, and people turn to drugs and alcohol to deal with their problems.

Other effects are harder to spot.  There are three main pathways through which social conditions impact people’s health.  Austerity will have negative material, behavioral, and psychosocial impacts on health for years to come.

From a material standpoint, austerity will harm health through cuts to healthcare and the deterioration of health infrastructure.  Such measures produce short-term cost savings but long-term damage to health.  For example, reduced diabetes care today puts more people in wheelchairs decades down the road.

From a behavioral standpoint, austerity is already pushing large numbers of people toward alcohol abuse, drug addiction, and even suicide.  These problems particularly affect men who are thrown into unemployment.  The long-term effects include liver disease, lung cancer, and kidney failure.

From a psychosocial standpoint, chronic stress causes high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, coronary heart disease, and weakened immune systems.  All these health problems are related to chronically elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which is released when people experience feelings of helplessness.

All three pathways through which austerity affects health reinforce each other to produce potentially catastrophic long-term impacts on life expectancy.  This is what happened in Russia and Ukraine when the Soviet Union collapsed.  There were short-term impacts on healthcare as communist health systems fell apart, but the long-term cumulative effects on health are still depressing live expectancy.

Expect life expectancy in Greece and other austerity-hit countries to drop in coming years.  The drop will likely be small for women but large for men, as it was after the collapse of communism.  Suicides are only the first symptom of austerity syndrome.  The worst is yet to come.

Salvatore Babones

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