Róbert and Ľuba, a mid-forties Bratislava couple, first appeared in the pages of The Slovak Spectator in October 1999 as an example of a marriage which had hit the rocks through the stresses of unemployment, alcohol and gambling. They felt then that their story was a relatively common one, since many of their friends had had to wrestle with similar miseries as unemployment jumped from 14 to 19% within a year.
Last weekend, this newspaper learned that Róbert and Ľuba had tried to commit suicide after losing their flat and having racked up insuperable debts. Still unemployed, they had borrowed or stolen so much that they felt they had no option. They lost their flat, their furniture and their hope, and having been discovered unconscious and rushed to hospital by concerned relatives, awoke to find they had preserved only that which they had most wanted to extinguish.
Many readers wrote to us in 1999 that the couple's story was too horrific to be a common one, but the few reliable statistics available on suicide in Slovakia - and the reactions of the medical community - show that Róbert and Ľuba's fate is indeed becoming depressingly familiar.
Suicide among Slovak children and teenagers has increased the most, from about 10 a year from 1982 to 1986 to 42 in 1998, and is currently the second leading cause of death. Among adults, Košice region (where unemployment is currently highest, at over 25%) has led the country for years, with over 100 of Slovakia's 697 suicides in 2000 and dramatic jumps in Rožňava and Trebišov districts, where joblessness affects over one third of inhabitants. In Slovakia as a whole, suicide rates among men are about 22 per 100,000 inhabitants, well over the EU average of 18.9 but comparable with rates in Canada and the US.
The importance of unemployment, an unknown phenomenon merely a decade ago, as a cause of suicide is acknowledged by all health care professionals. Neither the state nor its citizens have been able to adapt to the growing scarcity of jobs, with the former content to dole out small helpings of money rather than create ways to reenter the workforce, and the latter prefering the solace of the bottle or the pill jar over sober appraisals of what is required of them in a capitalist labour market.
But it's not just people on the edge of outer dark who are crying for something to be done - in a survey published January 23 by the Institute for the Research of Public Opinion, most (82%) of the 1,700 respondents to a January poll said the country's most urgent problem was unemployment, an almost 20% increase over last year's answers.
It wouldn't be quite as desperate if people without jobs or hope of getting one had some kind of help to deal with their understandable anguish and depression. But Slovakia is not the West, where Prozac and various other anti-depressants occupy as hallowed a place in domestic pill cabinets as Valium or Tums. It's not yet a country where people understand that clinical depression - that darkening of one's inner world, where it's evening all day long - is something that can be treated as matter-of-factly as chicken pox. And it's far from a society in which people can speak openly about melancholia, other than to say they have 'problems' and conceal the dizzying depths of their malaise from the people who might help.
Not everyone who loses their job feels the need to kill themselves. But add alcohol (the Slovak Prozac) to the equation, and a generous measure of inexperience in managing one's financial assets (the very reason that pyramid schemes and privatisation pirates seem to flower in post-Communist countries), and you have the makings of a depression- and suicide-prone 'underclass' that is beyond most post-1980's Western experience.
If any are to provide a path out of the maze for the afflicted it is Slovak health professionals. But they, as their political masters, seem bereft of answers let alone a vision of a system more responsive to the needs of their patients. Tellingly, 69% of Slovaks in the January survey put health care in second place as the greatest emergency the country faces, and while the country has many caring doctors aghast at the state the sector is in, it knows an equal number of scoundrels and crooks who will not deliver reasonable care without a bribe, and who dismiss attempted suicides and alcoholics as beneath their contempt.
It may interest Prime Minister Dzurinda and his crew that only 12% of those polled think Slovakia's integration process into the EU and NATO should be speeded up. As important as haste towards a market economy and alliance clubbiness may be, two principles on which all decent life rests are being ignored: Justice for those who have profited illegally from the journey, and mercy for those who have suffered unduly. In the words of James Joyce: "People used to be terrified of suicides. In the middle ages they would drive a wooden stake through the dead person's heart. As if it wasn't broken already."