Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Serbia: Suicide on the Rise

Poverty and upheaval are driving a desperate population closer to the edge
By Sinisa Stanimirovic

After a tense two hours on top of an 18-storey building in central Nis, Zoran Stankovic is talked out of killing himself. The hundreds of people who gathered to witness the drama disperse as police take the distraught 30-year-old home.

It later emerges that the street trader had been driven to the brink of suicide after police officers seized all the merchandise he was planning to sell at a flea market.

Stankovic is not the only one who feels he has nothing left to live for. In Nis alone, local police estimate that, of its 350,000 residents, one person takes their own life every five days with many more unsuccessful attempts going unrecorded.

There are similar stories to be heard all over Serbia. Subotica, a town with a population of 100,000 in north Vojvodina, used to have the highest number of suicides and still suffers an average of one a week. A total of 791 people took their own lives in the decade spanning 1991-2001 - a rise of 150 on the previous ten-year period.

In Belgrade, which boasts a population of two and a half million, some 900 people end their own lives last year. During the past two weeks in the capital alone, there were four suicides and two further attempts. Novi Sad, Sombor, Kragujevac are not far behind.

It is difficult to gather official statistics, as there are no dedicated organisations on hand to study the problem. But poverty seems to have been a major factor in 28 recent suicide cases in Nis, with 13 of the dead being unemployed and seven living on meagre pensions.

An increasing number of Serbs feel that there is nothing worth living for, a fact highlighted in a recent poll of family life conducted by Dr Andjelka Milic, professor of sociology at the University of Belgrade.

"Two thirds of families polled said that they feel like losers in all aspects of life," said Milic.

Dr Julijana Puric Pejakovic, a Belgrade psychiatrist who specialises in the study of suicide, also points to the problems facing the large refugee communities settling into Serbia's urban centres after life in rural Croatia, Bosnia or Kosovo. Nearly all face poverty and many have lost loved ones during the years of war or through emigration.

Dr Pejakovic says it is hard to maintain a healthy and happy outlook on life when you are far from home in bleak circumstances, "In a situation when you have abandoned almost everything, a terrible vacuum can exist in your life. It is very difficult to pull yourself out of that."

The rise in suicide is worrying, but so too are the increasingly brutal methods being chosen. People are ending their lives by self-immolation, jumping from tall buildings, or under the wheels of trains and blowing themselves up with hand-grenades.

Court forensic pathologist Dr Slobodan Savic confirms that armaments stockpiled during recent regional conflicts have been used in an increasing number of suicides.

"Men are more likely to have access to such weapons than women, and so are more inclined to kill themselves in this way," he told IWPR.

Belgrade Health Protection Institute statistics suggest that an increasing number of children are choosing to end their lives, especially around traditional times of celebration. This has highlighted a need for a better emotional support network within Serbia, say specialists.

Poverty and conflict within the family are being cited as possible causes. Parental stress, especially among those who have to hold down more than one job to make ends meet, can be particularly difficult for children to cope with.

"Poor relationships between children and parents, relatives, friends and colleagues exacerbate all other crises," said Dr Pejakovic.

With the region still facing many problems and little professional help available, it seems that many more people such as Stankovic will find themselves too close to the edge.

Sinisa Stanimirovic is an editor with the Belgrade daily Nacional.