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This Europe: Suicide 'epidemic' shames Lithuania

Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, with its baroque churches, boulevards and boutiques, looks like a smart European capital. The latest report from the European Union praises the Baltic nation – set to become a member in 2004 – as a star pupil.

But the economic picture masks a suicide rate that is now the highest in the world. Lithuania now far outstrips countries once thought to top the rankings, such as Finland or Hungary.

An average of 30 people kill themselves a week, out of a population of only 3.5 million. Statistics show that 44 people in every 100,000 killed themselves in 2001. In rural areas, men commit suicide at a rate of 111 per 100,000 each year. The rate in Britain is 11 per 100,000.

"It's an epidemic if 1,500 people or more are dying in a small country," said Dr Dainius Puras, a mental health expert commissioned to create a national Suicide Prevention Plan.

"What would happen if 1,000 people died from an infectious disease in the same country – the government would invest millions."

The authorities admit they are ill-equipped to tackle the crisis. "We were a little bit shocked," said Vidmantas Zilinskas, the deputy health minister. "Now [our specialists] realise it's true. And we are starting to do something about it."

Dr Puras, who has warned of the prevalence of mental health problems in the former Eastern Bloc, is calling on Brussels to take note of the statistics. They do not show up in the macro-economic data and are ignored in a new spirit of what he calls "survivalism", typical of post-communist converts to capitalism.

Although unemployment and alcoholism appear the most immediate causes, other reasons lie in Lithuania's history, including the Holocaust and Stalin's deportations. The challenge for many of switching from a passive but secure Soviet existence to the first, raw stage of capitalism has also left many polarised.

Justin Webster's report can be seen on Channel 4 at 7pm