Happier Hungarians shake the suicidal blues

Adam Lebor
Sunday 09 August 1998 00:02 BST

THE WORLD'S most depressed nation is finally cheering up. Hungarians, who for decades have topped the global league table of suicides, have now fallen to sixth place, as its people have begun to reap the benefits of a successful transition from communism.

With Hungary attracting more foreign investment than its eastern European neighbours and its younger generation enjoying a world of opportunity closed to their predecessors, this traditionally miserable nation has been overtaken in the suicide stakes by the three Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, as well as Russia and Sri Lanka.

By the late 1980s, as eastern Europe descended into political turmoil with the advent of glasnost and the eventual collapse of the communist system, 47 Hungarians per 100,000 were killing themselves every year. According to the latest figures issued by the World Health Organisation the figure is down to 26 per 100,000. In Britain it is 7 per 100,000.

There are many theories as to why the Magyars, as Hungarians call themselves, are so morose, but the most likely explanation seems to be a combination of cultural and possible genetic disposition to depression, made worse by the nation's tragic history. This is littered with crushing defeats, foreign occupations, failed uprisings and doomed revolutions, all of which have permeated the national historical consciousness.

In the past two centuries alone, Hungarians have suffered four major defeats. The first was at the hands of the Hapsburgs in 1848 - even now Hungarians do not clink beer glasses, because it reminds them of their former oppressors, the Austrians - the second in 1914, when the Austro- Hungarian army was defeated by the Western allies.

That led to the biggest scar on the national psyche, the Treaty of Trianon, when the victors carved off almost two-thirds of Hungarian lands and gave them to neighbours such as Romania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.

Defeat followed again in the Second World War. Nazi occupation was followed by the Soviet takeover, only brought to an end in the summer of 1991. The Hungarians suffered their most glorious defeat in 1956, when street- fighting rebels, many armed only with rifles and petrol bombs, briefly held off the Red Army.

Given the litany of historical setbacks, little wonder that one of the most popular Hungarian sayings roughly translates as "I'm happy when I'm crying".

Billie Holiday's famous lament, "Gloomy Sunday", was penned by a Hungarian, Rezso Seres, in the 1930s. As the song says:

Little white flowers won't wait for you,

Not where the black coach of sorrow has taken you;

Angels have no thought of ever returning you,

Would they be angry if I thought of joining you?"

The song triggered a bout of suicides by young Hungarians who leapt into the Danube, leaving only its lyrics and a rose behind on the bridge. Seres himself committed suicide in 1968. Even the national anthem, with its plea that "God help the Magyars" is a doleful celebration of the nation's tragic destiny.

About a quarter of Hungarians suffer from psychiatric illnesses, many of them linked to depression, and the nation also has one of the highest rates of alcoholism. That feeling of helplessness was exacerbated under communism, when life was controlled by the almost all-embracing Marxist state.

But now, there is finally some good news in this tidal wave of gloom. Hungary is prospering, having made a smooth and profitable transition from communism to capitalism. The country is on the fast track to EU and Nato membership, racing ahead of its neighbours such as Slovakia and Romania. Foreign investment is the highest in the region, Budapest is a bright and buzzing modern metropolis.

While a third of the population still lives on or below the poverty line, and life for some in remote villages has changed little since 1989, young people especially have adapted quickly to living in a Western-style society. Jobs and opportunities which did not exist under the old regime, such as in stockbroking or advertising, make Hungary a land of opportunity for the youthful and talented.

With job satisfaction, and the sense that Hungary is finally on the right track to its rightful place in Western Europe, that old sense of Magyar moroseness is finally fading away. "People now believe that they are the masters of their own destiny," said Dr Tamas Zonda, a psychiatrist and suicide expert. "As that feeling grows, so does our hope that suicide rates will one day be no higher than in many Western countries."

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