TREVISO, Italy — On New Year’s Eve, Antonio Tamiozzo, 53, hanged himself in the warehouse of his construction business near Vicenza, after several debtors did not pay what they owed him.
Three weeks earlier, Giovanni Schiavon, 59, a contractor, shot himself in the head at the headquarters of his debt-ridden construction company on the outskirts of Padua. As he faced the bleak prospect of ordering Christmas layoffs at his family firm of two generations, he wrote a last message: “Sorry, I cannot take it anymore.”
The economic downturn that has shaken Europe for the last three years has also swept away the foundations of once-sturdy lives, leading to an alarming spike in suicide rates. Especially in the most fragile nations like Greece, Ireland and Italy, small-business owners and entrepreneurs are increasingly taking their own lives in a phenomenon some European newspapers have started calling “suicide by economic crisis.”
Many, like Mr. Tamiozzo and Mr. Schiavon, have died in obscurity. Others, like the desperate 77-year-old retiree who shot himself outside the Greek Parliament on April 4, have turned their personal despair into dramatic public expressions of anger at the leaders who have failed to soften the blows of the crisis.
A complete picture of the phenomenon across Europe is elusive, as some countries lag in reporting statistics and coroners are loath to classify deaths as suicides, to protect surviving family members. But it is clear that countries on the front line of the economic crisis are suffering the worst, and that suicides among men have increased the most.
In Greece, the suicide rate among men increased more than 24 percent from 2007 to 2009, government statistics show. In Ireland during the same period, suicides among men rose more than 16 percent. In Italy, suicides motivated by economic difficulties have increased 52 percent, to 187 in 2010 — the most recent year for which statistics were available — from 123 in 2005.
Researchers say the trend has intensified this year as government austerity measures took hold and compounded the hardships for many. While suicides often have many complex causes, researchers have found that severe economic stress corresponds to higher suicide rates.
“Financial crisis puts the lives of ordinary people at risk, but much more dangerous is when there are radical cuts to social protection,” said David Stuckler, a sociologist at the University of Cambridge, who led a study published in The Lancet that found a sharp rise in suicides across Europe, particularly in seriously affected countries like Greece and Ireland from 2007 to 2009, years that coincided with the downturn.
“Austerity can turn a crisis into an epidemic,” Mr. Stuckler added.
Veneto, a region that was the engine of Italy’s economic growth in the 1990s, has been especially hard hit. In this part of the country, which includes the cities of Treviso, Vicenza and Padua, more than 30 small-business people have committed suicide in the last three years for reasons tied to their work as the area has been whipsawed by global trends including a drop in industrial orders, competition from China and tight bank credit.
Though the phenomenon has been particularly acute in the region, it has recently spread to Bologna, Catania and Rome.
In Rome this month, Mario Frasacco, 59, whose company made aluminum fixtures, killed himself, much to the shock of Rome’s small-business association, where he had been a board member. Other members were surprised when he suddenly canceled a business trip with them to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, scheduled for May.
“Now, unfortunately, we sadly understand the probable reason why,” Erino Colombi, the association’s president, said in a statement. The association has organized a candlelight vigil on Wednesday to honor the victims of the economic crisis in Rome.
In Ireland, the phenomenon has been linked to what some therapists call Celtic Tiger depression, the period after 2008 characterized by an influx of middle-aged male patients who complained about sleeplessness and a lack of appetite in the aftermath of that nation’s destructive boom-and-bust real estate market.
To search for answers, researchers for the National Suicide Research Foundation in Cork interviewed surviving relatives of 190 people who committed suicide in County Cork during the turbulent period from 2008 to March 2011.
The victims were predominantly men, with an average age of 36. Almost 40 percent were unemployed, and 32 percent worked in construction as plumbers, electricians and plasterers, said Ella Arensman, the foundation’s director of research. Generally, she added, they suffered from a constellation of problems: financial struggles, unemployment, broken relationships and loneliness.
Across Europe, men are the most vulnerable, particularly unmarried men who have weak family and government support, according to Mr. Stuckler, the sociologist. Alcohol abuse is a frequent contributing factor, he said, adding, “It’s really important to have friends and family you can trust in hard times.”
Indeed, during one dark night in his life, George Mordaunt, 44, said he nearly became a statistic. For three years, until 2007, he helped to build up his family’s 30-year-old automobile business in Clonmel, in southern Ireland, adding three new dealerships. Then, in 2008, the crisis struck. Now all that remains is the original family dealership.
Mr. Mordaunt said he considered suicide after a tough-talking banker threatened to seize his home if he did not repay his loans: “Save the sob story. We want our money. If that means taking your family home, we’ll do it,” he recalled being told.
That night, he said, he wandered into his sleeping son’s room, dwelling on the fate of another man he knew who had committed suicide and imagining his own funeral with his children marching behind a hearse.
“How many other people lie awake at night with the same fears?” he asked. “How many people are on the verge of losing everything? Everyone in Ireland must become active in our rescue.
“We don’t communicate and don’t share because we are laced with unreal pride. My view is you become active and stand up to the banks.”
Mr. Mordaunt ultimately founded a counseling service, Insight, offering advice to people seeking to renegotiate bank debt.
Such circumstances are sometimes reversed in Italy, where in some cases it is the government that has not paid its debts to struggling businessmen. National legislation aimed at curbing public spending has caused state and local administrations to rack up billions of dollars in outstanding bills with creditors, putting a squeeze on many small businesses.
“That is the madness of this crisis, that people kill themselves because they haven’t been paid by public institutions,” said Massimo Nardin, a spokesman for the Padua Chamber of Commerce.
On average, government agencies pay their bills within 180 days, but in the public health sector that can stretch to two or three years, one of the worst records in Europe, says Marco Beltrandi, a lawmaker from the Radical Party. He estimated the outstanding credit as between $118.3 billion and $131.5 billion.
“Late payments were always the norm,” Mr. Beltrandi said, “but now it’s gotten out of hand. That’s why the problem has exploded.”
Private creditors are holding back, too. “The problem is the system, no one is paying any more — private, public, it’s all blocked,” said Salvatore Federico, general secretary of the Veneto branch of the Filca Cisl construction workers’ union. “The situation in general is stalled, and my sense is that no one knows how to get out of it.”
In the Veneto, the spate of suicides is a mark of social unease in a territory where the Roman Catholic Church used to hold considerable sway.
“Work became the religion here, and over time it has weakened the family — because if all you do is work, work, work, you have little else to fall on when that fails,” said the Rev. Davide Schiavon, who heads the Treviso branch of the Catholic charity Caritas, which recently inaugurated a program to assist businesspeople facing financial difficulties. (Father Schiavon is not related to Giovanni Schiavon.)
Social scientists say that some nations, like Sweden or Finland, avoided a rise in suicide rates in times of crisis because they invested in labor-market projects — initiatives to help get people back on their feet — instead of cash handouts.
In some places, community groups and charities have tried to provide a patchwork of aid along with suicide prevention campaigns to raise awareness. In Ireland, at Saint Peter and Paul’s parish in Clonmel, the church offered a three-day seminar on themes like “Suicide in Recessionary Times.”
Suicide prevention hot line numbers are posted in gas stations on the road to Dublin, and a number of prominent figures are speaking out on the issue, among them the president of Ireland, rugby stars and U2’s bass player, Adam Clayton, who is raising money for free mental health services for young adults with a national Walk in My Shoes day on April 26.
In Italy, business associations and trade unions, in a rare show of unity, say they are frustrated that the issue has not gotten more attention.
“This is a social malaise, we’re inside a tunnel and there’s no light at any end,” said Mr. Federico, whose union is starting a new foundation to assist victims of the economic crisis. The daughters of Giovanni Schiavon and Antonio Tamiozzo are among the founding members.
“People don’t kill themselves just because they have debts,” Mr. Federico said, “it’s a combination of factors that lead to desperation.
“But what links all these situations ultimately is indifference, and lack of respect for the years of work that they’d done,” he said. “On some level, they must have felt that.”
Elisabetta Povoledo reported from Treviso, and Doreen Carvajal from Lahardane, Ireland.