A somewhat unusual exhibition was staged in Budapest at the Open Society Archives this fall. There were no posters or attractions on the walls of the large hall to attract the public: visitors were confronted only by rows of narrow podia, upon each of which was a simple folder. Inside was a photograph, and some text describing the circumstances illustrated.
The photographs were the scenes of suicides found among a massive, uncatalogued collection of police photographs given to the OSA dating from 1956 to 1986.
“When we looked at the photographs, we realized that we had never, ever seen photographs of such desperate poverty and hopelessness,” István Rév, the curator, said at an introduction to the exhibition on October 10.
Rév and his team felt a special responsibility for the photographs, hence the exhibition. As he put it: “We know that this is exactly the period when Hungary had the highest suicide rate in the world. Each year, close to 5,000 people managed to end their lives in these three decades.”
To this day, many Hungarians speak of having the highest suicide rate in the world. Now, here’s the good news. Rév was correct, in part: suicides in Hungary peaked in 1983, at 4,911 cases. But the numbers were at just 2,000 per annum in 1956. So, as tragic as that is, those horrible numbers – which represent a rate of 46 suicides per 100,000 population at their worst – were not quite as bad as Rév intimated.
And now, even better news: since that peak, almost without exception, those numbers have declined each and every year. In 2017, the number had crept down to 1,634, a rate of nearly 17 suicides per 100,000 population.
Naturally, this is 1,634 – nearly five persons a day – too many. It also does not compare well internationally: according to the latest statistics on Eurostat (2015), Hungary was joint third in suicides rates (with Latvia) in the European Union, at 19 per 100,000.
The 1,634 is also far too many for Károly Oriold, founder of Lélekben Otthon (In the Soul at Home), a Budapest- based NGO committed to preventing suicide.
“Our main message is that suicide is preventable and avoidable. We offer a help line for anyone feeling suicidal. Hopefully, our little foundation has helped [reduce the numbers],” he says.
Oriold points to loneliness, especially for men over middle age, a difficult family upbringing – including violence – and alcohol consumption as factors all leading to suicidal tendencies.
But why should this feature here, a column on economic and business-related issues?
Because, the value of life apart, there is an economic cost, however difficult to quantify.
“When, say, a young person commits suicide, parents, classmates, close friends, all suffer some sickness, e.g. mental depression,” says Oriold.
In other words, it adversely affects anyone in a job, or at studies. Sadly, few in high authority seem to care. “We get no help from the government,” Oriold sighs.
But some do: treatment by medical staff in Hungary has improved. “Somehow, the young generation in psychology and psychiatry seems to be more effective and enthusiastic,” he says.
Equally surprisingly, attendance at the suicide exhibition was also deemed “one of the most successful exhibitions of the gallery in the Goldberger House,” according to an organizer, with nearly 1,500 visitors.
Hopefully, this means those awful statistics, along with the suffering involved, will continue their downward trend.
The Bottom Line is a monthly column written by Kester Eddy, a long-standing and well respected Budapest-based business and economic journalist, who has written for the Financial Times and many regional publications. The opinions expressed in the column are not necessarily those of the Budapest Business Journal. To comment on this column, or on anything else in the BBJ, email the editor at email@example.com