Lithuanian Suicide Rate Spotlights Social Issues

KIJUCIAI, Lithuania -- Lithuania has the highest suicide rate in Europe, and Darius Linkevicius, a woodcutter with a wife and three children, can understand why.

"Suicide seems to be a way out of all the problems. You are gone and there is no need to think about them," he said. "I have been thinking about committing suicide but only when drunk, never when sober."

High suicide rates are one of the painful social issues for the Baltic states of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, which joined the European Union in 2004.

Beyond the impressive economic growth and transformation of their capitals from drab cities into tourist attractions is a world of hardship for large swaths of the population.

Pensioners struggle to survive, healthcare facilities are often poor, and cases of tuberculosis, a disease often associated with poverty, are far above the EU average.

The suicide rate in Lithuania was 30 people per 100,000 in 2006, with men most at risk. In neighboring Latvia the rate was 21.4, according to official data.

Suicide is particularly prevalent in rural communities, where unemployment rose following the dissolution of Soviet-era collective farms. In the district of Varena, where Linkevicius the woodcutter lives, the toll was 71.9 per 100,000.

People lack the necessary education and professional skills or are too old to adapt to new realities, and the state has put too little effort in helping them, experts say. In desperation, many turn to alcohol, fuelling their feelings of hopelessness.

Linkevicius and his family live in a house that used to be a primary school. The building is badly in need of renovation, and when it gets cold ice forms on the inside walls.

Linkevicius earns 800 Lithuanian litas ($365) a month cutting wood, his wife said. When he cannot work because he has been drinking, the family receives 156 litas ($70) in state benefits.

"My head is blowing up. Every morning I wake up, I have to think where to get bread, where to get potatoes, how to feed the children," said Irena Linkeviciene, 29, Darius's wife.

Their way of life is far removed from the capital Vilnius, which, is a showcase for post-Soviet Baltic reforms.

Office blocks, hotels, bars and restaurants have sprung up, and the roads are choked with new cars, including expensive brands like BMW and Mercedes.

The growing gap between rich and poor, worsened by rising inflation, led to a campaign in Latvia for a referendum on raising pensions. The government responded by deciding to index pensions twice a year.

Many pensioners survive on as little as 120 Latvian lats ($270) a month at a time when prices are rising, particularly for staple food products like milk and bread. Inflation hit 16.7 percent in February.

In Lithuania, the suicide trend is down -- the national rate was 46.6 per 100,000 in 1996 -- and experts expect it to improve gradually as the benefits from economic growth spread.

But Linkevicius is not convinced.

"Life has not improved for the ordinary man. ... When you drink, you tend to forget these problems," he said.