• 2002-04-04
There are a lot of myths and half-proven theories about suicide. But nobody has adequately explained why Lithuania should have to bear the distressing title of the world suicide leader.

Before World War II, suicide rates in Lithuania were far below those of many other countries in Central and Eastern Europe. What happened to upset the balance? That could easily be summed up as 50 years of repression, followed by freedom constrained by recession.

But that's the story for many other nations in the region. Why should the despair of the Lithuanians - the most pessimistic people among 62 nations polled in a Gallup international survey last year - end so tragically so often?

An especially dramatic period of transition, too much sensationalism in the media about suicide without any analysis, a complete lack of psychological help for people in distress, a crisis in values and loss of religious faith, feelings of helplessness - all these things are found in abundance in Lithuania. But they also prevail in neighboring countries.

Perhaps it's the quiet Baltic personality. Compared to the more vocal Slavs, Balts tend to keep it all in.

Perhaps it's the failure to become reconciled with Catholicism, after so many years of being force-fed Soviet atheism.

The theories will keep on circulating. But little of any practical value is being done about it.

Research has suggested that women attempt suicide more often than men. But, as can be seen from Lithuania's statistics, men are a lot more successful in doing it.

Many men in this part of the world are unable to cope with the pressures of maintaining a family and meeting the demands of wives and children for a better life - or at least one that's better than the neighbors'.

In Lithuania, 25 men take their own lives every week, a debilitating fact for a country of just 3.4 million people. For a variety of reasons, there are already over 200,000 more women than men in Lithuania.

Suicide statistics may not even be accurate. There are several reasons to doubt them. Some reports say that suicides are over-registered in Lithuania, with male homicides being mis-classified as suicides in an effort to cover up any wrong-doing.

Other observers suggest that since suicide comes with strongly negative public attitudes in Catholic countries like Lithuania, officials are willing to classify suspected suicides as accidental deaths. Relatives and friends, they say, may be allowed to tamper with evidence to avoid the social stigma that accompanies the suicide of a loved one.

That would mean the real figures are even higher: a suicide epidemic.