Why Do Belarusians Commit Suicide?
On 10 September, the world marked suicide prevention day. Belarus ranks sixth in the world with regard to the number of total suicides that occur annually.
Last year, about two thousand Belarusians committed suicide – higher than the number of road accident victims. Belarusian men, like elsewhere in the world, tend to commit suicide more than women, though the large number of suicides in rural areas sets Belarus apart from other countries. Studies indicate that increases in alcohol consumption in Belarus correlates with an increase in the number of suicides.
The overall social withdrawal and tendency towards depression that Belarusians face, rather than poverty, constitute the main reasons for the current situation. Although the Ministry of Health Care has taken certain steps to prevent suicides, Belarusians should first and foremost decrease their own alcohol consumption in order to reach this goal.
The Grand Duchy of Suicide
Every year, about a million people all over the world commit suicide. Scientists and scholars consider those countries that have a rate of 20 suicides per 100 thousand people to be states with a high level of social behaviour. Since it gained its independence, Belarus has never dropped down to this level.
World statistics on suicides are not regularly updated, which sometimes makes it impossible to properly assess and highlight Belarus’ place with regard to the number of suicides that take place in the country annually.
In 2012, 1,949 Belarusians committed suicide. In the 1990s, the number was even larger – about 3,500 Belarusians killed themselves every year. Before the economic crisis and default happened in Russia in 1998, the number of suicides decreased while after the default it once again began to grow.
Belarus often parallels Lithuania in such ratings – a country with which it shares a long common history.
Although the countries picked different paths of development, they remained similar to one another in the number of suicides committed in each. This is perhaps due to the fact that both countries are agriculture-based as a considerable number of people could not adapt to the capitalist reforms and fell into despair.
Lithuanians often tie the large number of suicides to the overall depression of the nation, which could also be said about Belarusians as well. The problem lies also in the fact that many people in both Lithuania and Belarus lost any possibility of earning a living in the countryside and at the same time were not able to adapt to working in the private sector with industry or services.
The number of suicides in Belarus coincides with the same tendencies in many other post-Soviet countries that built their independence on the foundations of their great Soviet heritage — one that left them with an empty state budget and destroyed connections and trust between people.
Suicide in Belarus
In order to realise the seriousness of the number of 1,949 suicides, it may be instructive to compare it with the number of road accidents victims – 1,312 people last year, or the victims of alcohol poisoning – which was 1,918.
A high level of alcohol consumption often leads to higher levels of suicide. Most of the people who killed themselves and who attempted suicide abused alcohol for at least a year before they decided to take their lives.
Yury Razvodovsky, a Belarusian scholar from Hrodna State Medical University conducted research and produced a report that shows a significant association between alcohol consumption and suicide rates. The study suggests that an increase in alcohol consumption per capita by 1 litre would result in an 8.8% increase of the suicides rate.
The scholar observed that Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign reduced the consumption of alcohol from 13.3 to 6.7 litres between 1984 and 1986 which in turn led to a decrease in the suicide rate 15.4 to 7.0 per 100,000 people. Therefore the author of the report concluded that restrictive alcohol policy would be an effective measure to prevent suicides.
Rural residents tend to drink more. Although only a quarter of Belarusians live in the countryside, the number of suicides there remains 2.5 higher bigger than in the cities. Alcohol remains remarkably cheap and affordable in Belarus, which makes the problem even worse.
The average suicide victim from Belarus is a man of active working age between 45-54 from the countryside. He has a lower than the nationwide average level of education, meaning that more often than not he did not have even complete secondary education. As for women, many of the victims were retirees on pension. Still, it is working age people that have committed a majority of the suicides. Hanging or jumping remain the most frequent ways to commit suicide for Belarusians, accounting for nearly 80% of all suicides.
The low level of religiousness in Belarus also affects the numbers. According to the research of Gallup, Belarus remains one of the most atheistic countries worldwide. Only 27 percent of respondents said that religion played an important part in their everyday life. It should also be noted that none of the other world leaders in suicide are particularly religious countries.
What Does the State Do?
Although the Ministry of Health Care elaborated a complex plan on suicide prevention, the root of the problem lies in the closed mentality of Belarusians. According to TUT.by, 90% of people who killed themselves never tried to get psychiatric help from specialists. Some people are afraid of asking for counseling or support as they remain afraid of being put on a record as having received psychiatric treatment.
Although the number of suicides is decreasing, Albina Samusenka of the Mahileu Centre for Hygiene, Epidemiology and Public Health says that “the situation has not improved as the number of para-suicides is growing. The people who are attempting suicide are still there.”
Suicides are not the kind of problem that a presidential decree can solve. To cut down the number of suicides committed annually, Belarusians should lessen their alcohol consumption and conduct real economic reforms, especially privatisation of land in the rural areas.
Changing the Belarusians mentality to make their minds more open remains the key task. By restricting the freedom of association and other rights of its citizens, the Belarusian authorities have done much in the way of depriving Belarusians of the opportunity to articulate their interests.
A robust policy to reduce alcohol consumption coupled with giving more freedom to religious organisations and NGOs would help decrease the suicide rate in Belarus. Unfortunately, many authoritarian regimes view strengthening civil society as a threat to their existence. Belarus is not an exception here.
Getting to Know Belarus: An American’s Year in Minsk
A country where parachuting teddy bears and clapping in public are illegal? Where one in eight people is employed by the military or the police? Where nobody speaks English at all? Why would anyone want to go there? These were the questions that friends and family asked when I told them I was going to teach English in Belarus as a Fulbright scholar for the 2012-2013 school year.
I had maintained a positive outlook on going to Belarus from the beginning, when I first submitted my application to the Fulbright Commission. My Lithuanian roots combined with my study of Russian language made Belarus a perfect place to experience the crossroads of the Baltic and Slavic nations. Interest in the political situation sharpened my intrigue, as did the opportunity to impart my native knowledge of English as a teacher.
Boarding the plane in August 2012 was easy, but by the time my flight was landing, I had gotten apprehensive. As the plane descended into Minsk-2 International Airport, I wondered if all the rumours were true, if the country was as strange as colleagues and Internet articles had claimed. The answers were revealed over the course of my year in Minsk.
My first impression of Minsk was almost exactly as I imagined it. Partizanskii Prospekt was a wide avenue along which crawled giant, light green, caterpillar-like trolleybuses. A mix of high-rise concrete blocks and faded three-to-six story Stalin-era apartment rows stood on a grey-skied background. On my first day, I visited my university, paid for my accommodation in the sparse dormitory and bought simple groceries at the windowless Belarus department store. I heard English spoken only by Yuliya, a fourth-year university student who had been assigned to guide me around the city.
As I became acquainted with Minsk, I was fascinated by how things operated. The Metro was consistently on time; the streets, impeccably clean; the people, friendly enough and happy to become acquainted with an outsider.
I systematically walked around the city, visiting different parks, monuments and places of interest, trying to figure out what it was about the city that made it so much different from Vilnius, my second home, only three hours away. It could have been anything from the lack of history, to the linguistic identity crisis, to the charming, peeling pink paint on the Pobeda Cinema.
I struggled to answer when new acquaintances asked me, as they always did, “What do you think?”
To some degree, one of the things that initially attracted me to and intrigued me about Belarus was the rumor that the Soviet Union’s influence still echoed across much of the country. When I found my first hammer and sickle on the façade of GUM, the state-run universal department store, I felt conflicted. On one hand, I was witnessing an idiosyncratic lifestyle that had elsewhere faded over the course of the past 22 years. On the other, it was creepy to see the remnants of a bygone era.
The amount of bureaucratic red tape that I had to cut through turned out to be the most actual example of Soviet life. It had been hinted at before my arrival, when I was preparing my travel documents. A brief phone call to the Belarusian Consulate in New York to ask if my documents were received was answered by an irritable woman who could confirm nothing without a mysterious tracking number.
Upon arrival, I visited my district police station approximately five times in the registration and visa-extension process, bringing with me various translated, notarised, and stamped papers from the bank, my university, and the housing authority office, proving my residency and occupation.
Everyday examples of Soviet life were charming at first, but became tiresome. The most evident was the simple experience of grocery shopping. Every few days I went to Centralny supermarket to buy food, and found that the selection and supply varied on an hourly basis. Sometimes I would be able to find my favourite products; other times, not at all. Once, right around Christmas time, a row of jars of peanut butter, my favourite indulgence, lined one shelf of the store. Within twelve hours it was gone, only to reappear three months later.
Linguistically, I was in a unique place. Having studied Russian for three years prior to my arrival, I understood much of what was happening and was able to communicate my needs fairly clearly. Nevertheless, I was surprised to find that many people, when they discovered that I was an American, were eager to practice their English with me, from my students to the door lady at the university dormitory!
living in Belarus was quite comfortable, if I directed my attention away from the dubious political situation and the national identity crisis Read more
It turned out that English was much more widely spoken than I expected. Despite their enthusiasm to speak, many of these people seemed nervous to become too close to me. Forming a solid social group was a challenge that lasted the whole year. Although the culture was fairly closed, I found that I fit in very well with the local population, which could have had something to do with my distinctly Baltic features.
I had been warned that the police officers who regularly patrolled our block would be inclined to check my documents if they suspected that I was a foreigner. Luckily, I never had any trouble with the many police officers I saw over the course of the year, and I found them mostly cordial in the few times when I did encounter them.
Living the Life
As time went on the city gained depth, and the country began to fulfil its promises to me. Working at the university and developing relationships with other organisations around Minsk, I found that living in Belarus was quite comfortable, if I directed my attention away from the dubious political situation and the national identity crisis that manifested itself in each individual.
The charm of the Soviet architecture and Lenin’s statue in the city centre never disappointed, and I developed a sort of affection for the ever-present Belarus tractors and the city’s pride in the newly historic Trinity Suburb and the jewel-like National Library.
I left Belarus at the eleventh hour, boarding a train to Vilnius in the evening on the day my visa expired on 15 June 2013. After nearly ten months of living in the country I felt that I had adapted to the unique lifestyle that such an isolated country offered to an American like myself. At first reflection, I have come to the conclusion that, like a good comrade, as long as you expect nothing from Belarus, Belarus will expect nothing from you in return.
Soon to come is a series of articles on Belarus Digest, in which I will further describe some of these experiences and topics and explore the life of an American in Belarus.
Monika was a Fulbright scholar teaching in Belarus in 2012-2013.