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Wednesday, March 12, 2014
- Renato Grbic is a simple Belgrade fisherman, who grew up on the shores of the Danube River in Belgrade, but he performs an additional job that he is not paid for.
In the last 14 years, 50-year-old Grbic has saved the lives of 25 people who were attempting to commit suicide by jumping into the river from Belgrade’s Pancevo Bridge.
“When I ask them why (they wanted to end their lives), they either say they were ‘depressed’ or they ‘could not take it any more’,” he told IPS. “Times are really hard for people today.”
Serbian Health Minister Slavica Djukic Dejanovic echoed Grbic’s words when she said, “By 2020, depression will be the second leading cause of absence from work.
“The current number of psychotherapists and psychiatrists is not enough to deal with the issue and we are making an effort to improve the situation soon,” she added in her opening address at a congress of mental health experts in Belgrade.
According to statistics from the ministry of health, this Eastern European nation of 7.2 million people has only 350 certified psychotherapists and 900 psychiatrists.
The Association of Psychotherapy Societies of Serbia puts the need for psychotherapists at between 6,000 and 8,000. Some 1,500 specialists are currently undergoing training and will be qualified to enter the system soon.
“Roughly a third of the population has experienced mental disorder due to the current economic crisis that has taken its toll in the form of unemployment and growing poverty,” Nadja Maric Bojovic, head of the Belgrade Psychiatry Clinic, told reporters.
Lingering trauma from the wars that ripped through the region in the 1990s, coupled with memories of the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999, as well as enduring hardships from economic stagnation during a period of international sanctions 1992-2000 have all compounded the issue.
“European statistics put the rate of mental disorders at 27 percent in 27 European Union member countries, with issues such as anxiety, insomnia and depression at the top of the list,” she added.
Concurring with largely accepted data by other experts in the field, she said that one in ten people with mental health issues has sought professional help.
“A large number of people have mental problems, but do not know how to solve them,” Zoran Milivojevic, head of the Association of Psychotherapy Societies of Serbia told IPS. In the absence of adequate professional services, “they take to tranquillisers instead, (leading to) large abuse of these substances.”
Ministry of health statistics suggest that the tranquilliser bromazepam (known in Serbia as ‘Bensedine’) was the most frequently prescribed drug in the country in 2011. Doctors prescribed 4.3 million packs of the product, with three million sold under the counter that same year, despite a prohibition law since 2002.
The tranquilliser lorazepam was the fifth most common prescription drug in 2011, with 1.6 million legally issued packs.
“They think it’s simply easier to take a drug than to try to solve problems with visits to therapists,” psychologist Nebojsa Jovanovic told IPS. “That calls for (increased) personal involvement.”
Serbian institutions have insufficient data on mental health issues, with the exception of precise statistics on suicides. There Serbia ranks 13th in the world, with 14 suicides per 100,000 people, according to statistics from the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Translated into annual statistics, this means that there were 1,400 suicides in Serbia in 2011, almost four per day.
But the only specialised centre for prevention of suicides – an emergency phone line in Belgrade – ceased to exist in September due to a lack of finances.
“We had more than 2,300 calls from February 2011 until September this year,” Branka Kordic, the psychologist who was in charge of the project told IPS.
“We had no statistics on how many suicides we prevented, but most of the callers were men over 50 who had lost jobs, whom I’d call the biggest casualties of transition, who lost self-esteem, family support and the basic means of existence.”
Since 2000 Serbia has made a painful transition into the market economy, which accompanied by the last global crisis, led to a record unemployment rate of 25.5 percent.
The economic hardships and personal struggles have “been too long and too much for many,” Nebojsa Jovanovic told IPS.