Hungary tries to lift the gloom

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A Hungarian's lot is not a happy one. Life expectancy is low; melancholy, alcoholism and tobacco consumption are high; and the only world record the country holds is for its suicide rate.

It is a depressing picture. So depressing, in fact, that the government has ruled that it is time for decisive measures. Hungarians of the future are to think positively, it has decreed. Instead of killing themselves, they are to be encouraged to change the habits of a lifetime - and simply enjoy themselves.

"The morale of the nation is extremely low," says Dr Andras Veer, the psychiatrist charged with co-ordinating the campaign. "Both collectively and individually, Hungarians lack self-confidence. But our task is to break out of the downward spiral."

According to Dr Veer, the Hungarian penchant for pessimism stems in part from the fact that Hungarians are relative newcomers to Europe (they arrived a mere 1100 years ago) and in part from the fact that their language is unintelligible to all outsiders.

Add to feelings of alienation, a history rich in occupations (at the hands of Turks, Mongols, Austrians and Russians), and spectacular military humiliations, and the recipe for despair is complete.

Although Hungarians have found plenty to moan about in the economic hardship since the collapse of communist rule, the suicide rate has been consistently high since records were first taken late last century.

At present, the country averages 4,100 suicides a year (about 41.3 per 100,000 inhabitants - twice the rates in Japan and Denmark and four times that in the US). Favoured methods among men include hanging, shooting in the head and jumping out of windows while women prefer drugs, poison and gas. Acceptance of suicide as a way out of a problem is widespread. As one specialist put it: "In some cultures a wronged husband will kill his rival. In Hungary he kills himself."

The government has earmarked 2bn forints (about pounds 10m) for the new programme, the first of its kind in eastern Europe. Some of the funds have already been spent on retraining of teachers to put a more positive slant on things generally and to engender greater self-esteem and confidence among pupils.

The programme will also aim to tackle Hungary's large problems of alcoholism (affecting almost 1 million out of a population of 10 million) and smoking (4 million), and to encourage healthier lifestyles.