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Suicides Devastate Family, Friends, Businesses: Latter Should do More for Mental Health

Analysis

Károly Oriold of the At Home in Your Soul Foundation.

A tragic case of self-immolation at the end of January, when a pensioner set himself alight in a local government office in the western city of Veszprém, briefly brought the subject of suicide into Hungarian headlines.

Local media speculated that the 74-year-old had become depressed over a mistake regarding the size of a fine imposed because his dogs, which had earlier attacked a local woman, were found to be neither vaccinated nor tagged.

But with the threat and then the reality of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the story was soon largely forgotten by February.

Not, however, by Károly Oriold, who heads the At Home in Your Soul Foundation (Lélekben Otthon Alapítvány), a largely voluntary group dedicated to helping improve mental health and prevent suicide in Hungary.

Oriold cautions against journalists speculating on the causes of suicides. Research has shown that “media unconsciously fabricate explanations and reasons for suicide in their articles, without having any idea of the reality and truth,” he told the Budapest Business Journal in an interview.

Worse still, a vulnerable person can be influenced by the mere mention that a victim thought suicide would be a solution to a problem (such as a large debt, as in the Veszprém case), potentially emulating the original tragedy.

“If my financial situation is getting worse, should I kill myself? The media shouldn’t make news in this way because we live in psychologically sensitive times, and there are high-stress levels. We must be careful for those of our compatriots who are in crisis,” he argues.

Spectacular, headline-grabbing cases aside, suicide has been mainly out of the headlines in recent years, and for a reason. Cases of death through self-harm in Hungary rose from 2,000 per annum in 1956 to a peak of 4,911 in 1983, a shocking rate of 46 per 100,000 population.

However, there has since been a general downward trend (with relatively minor exceptions in 2007-2010) to reach a low of 1,550 in 2019. While this number still translates into 30 unhappy people per week terminating their lives on a per capita basis (at just under 16 per 100,000 population), it is a vast improvement from the 1980s and compares well with some Western European countries, such as Belgium.

Negative Impact

Nonetheless, the negative impact of these deaths is far in excess of what the layman typically imagines, argues Oriold.

“New research from Australia examined how many people have been affected by this tragedy in a traumatic way. People thought before that the people impacted would only be very close family members, or maybe one or two close colleagues, so eight or 10 people. But they have discovered it is, on average, 130 persons; so, many more people are influenced than thought previously,” he says.

Moreover, 2020 (the last year for which official statistics are available) saw a worrying turnaround in Hungary, with 156 additional cases on the 2019 numbers, a 10% rise bringing the national total to 1,706. All but three of the increase were male victims.

Oriold is in no doubt as to the cause of the increase, attributing it to the “stupid” decision to close out-patient clinics, transfer psychiatrists to help with the pandemic, and empty 30,000 hospital beds to accept COVID patients over Easter week in 2020.

“Many psychiatric patients did not get treatment in this period: no medicine, no therapy, nothing. Psychiatric illness is very serious, and if such people don’t get treatment, their condition gets worse,” he said.

Moreover, the trauma and confusion caused by the closures, including in many cases a lack of information, led to untold suffering.

“At the beginning, it was terrible. It was not written: ‘Dear patients, the situation has changed, for now, we cannot see you.’ The stress levels increased, and only later do we see the consequences. There have been relapses in patients with schizophrenia, paranoid personality disorder, and borderline disorders. All these are very dangerous [conditions],” Oriold stresses.

Bence András Lázár, head of the psychiatric group of the Hungarian Medical Chamber, concurs, at least in part, with Oriold. Speaking to RTL Klub a little after the Veszprém tragedy about a rise in suicide attempts, he also noted that the lockdown, in general, increased the mental and psychological burden on more vulnerable people, helping to push them into despair, “particularly if they live on alone,” he said.

What can Businesses do?

While volunteers from the At Home in Your Soul Foundation generally help individuals, they are also involved with business-related suicide cases. In one, after the first wave of the COVID pandemic, a long-standing and well-liked member of staff at a Hungarian bank ended his life, causing massive trauma among his former colleagues.

“The victim had been missing treatment for four months, and he committed suicide only after beginning treatment again,” says Oriold. As is typical with those left behind, his former colleagues “found it very difficult to mourn. Afterward, people feel they should have done more themselves.”

Called in by the bank’s management to help counsel the traumatized staff, Oriold’s work helped another bank employee who had also been contemplating suicide to reveal his depression and get professional help.

“It was, for me, a very touching and valuable series of five [sessions],” he says.

However, Oriold says inquiries from businesses are few and far between. Asked if the business world should become more aware of mental health issues, his response is immediate.

“Absolutely!” he says, urging the government to look at Austria, where legal regulations mean businesses must have mental aspects assessed and certified in their overall health audit.

However, as noted by Bence Lázár in his interview with RTL Klub, treatment is often difficult to come by in the state healthcare system that is generally overworked and underfunded.

Indeed, on the very day news broke of the Veszprém suicide, the Central Statistical Office reported that the headcount in the Hungarian healthcare sector had fallen by some 17,000, or 8.5%, between the fourth quarter of 2021 compared to the year previously.

Business could and should help take up the slack, certainly on mental health issues, says Oriold, but he is not optimistic.

“I’ve not got a very good opinion about human resource [departments in Hungary]. I know there is violence in [some] workplaces,” he says. “And I know that the HR department does not always respond because they are dependent on the boss, and the boss himself is the violent [perpetrator],” he adds.

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of April 8, 2022.

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