Suicide rates rose sharply in European Union countries most affected by the 2008 financial crisis but a drop in road traffic accidents contributed to a fall in the total number of deaths, according to an analysis highlighting the varied impacts of downturns on health.

In a letter in the Lancet, the medical journal, David Stuckler from the University of Cambridge and three fellow authors highlighted a particular jump in suicides in Greece and Ireland. "The countries facing the most severe financial reversals of fortune ... had greater rises in suicides than did the other countries," they wrote.

Overall suicide rates rose 7 per cent in older EU states and less than 1 per cent in newer ones in 2008, and by 5 per cent in those 10 countries which reported data for 2009. They did not provide the overall numbers or absolute rates.

The study said that data from countries with more active labour market policies and strong social support networks suggested these approaches could mitigate the impact of the downturn. It cited Austria, where suicides fell in 2007-09 even as unemployment rose.

However, Finland, a country with strong social protection, showed by contrast a rise in suicides over the same period. "Fear of losing your job can be more important than actually losing it," Mr Stuckler told the Financial Times, stressing overall that "there is almost certainly a causal link" of suicides to the financial crisis.

The authors stressed that more data and analysis were required, with information on deaths only available for 2009 from 10 European countries, and most drawn from earlier years. That skewed the findings towards the UK among "older" and Romania among "newer" EU members, with more recent statistics available.

The gaps are "a reminder of the contrast between the substantial efforts expended by governments to collect up-to-the-minute financial data while health data lag by several years", they wrote.

Their findings matched previous analyses suggesting an increase in suicides during historical economic downturns, including during the Great Depression in the US, with alcohol, murder and suicides rising in tougher economic times.

But, also in line with previous crises, the authors said that overall deaths during the most recent 2008 downturn were offset notably by a reduction in road deaths, especially in countries where traffic fatalities had previously been high such as Lithuania.

Other academics have argued that recessions reduce mortality rates by providing people with more leisure and family time, and by reducing unhealthy behaviour including overeating, smoking and excessive alcohol consumption.

Comment: Actually, smoking is a well known method of stress reduction during harsh times.

There has also been debate about an increase since the downturn in the prescription of antidepressants, with some analysts suggesting there is a longer-term trend that may be linked to patients taking drugs for longer periods rather than any rise in the number of new cases diagnosed.