Suicide rates have risen sharply across Europe since the banking crisis as people struggle to cope with debt, unemployment and public service cuts.
Britons fared worse than average, with an 8 per cent rise in suicides between 2007 and 2009 – a shock after almost a decade of annual declines, according to research in The Lancet.
The mental health of people in countries worst hit by the crisis such as Ireland and Greece suffered most. In Greece, 16 per cent more people killed themselves in 2009 than 2007, a large increase, even before the huge financial bailouts hit jobs, pensions and public services. The Irish have suffered a similar fate, with a 13 per cent rise as people face up to home repossessions and dire long-term prospects.
The research is the first large-scale analysis of the impact of the recession on health, and it strongly suggests governments have failed to learn the lessons from previous economic downturns.
Countries that have a fair benefits system and strong programmes to help people back into work quickly have historically avoided suicide spikes during recessions.
Dr David Stuckler, lead author and lecturer in sociology at the University of Cambridge, said the findings were "terribly frustrating". "Human beings are the real tragedy of an economic crisis, so it is terribly frustrating that government leaders have not only failed to invest in programmes that protect people, but have actually done the opposite... This has been the pattern for three and a half decades but lessons have not been learnt," he said.
For every suicide there are on average 10 failed attempts and thousands of depression cases, which are much harder to count. Dr Peter Byrne, consultant liaison psychiatrist at Newham University Hospital in east London, said he has seen an increase in patients who have self-harmed or attempted suicide because of "personal debt, loss of hope and uncertainty".
Dr Andrew McCulloch, chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation, added: "The right health, social care, housing and employment support services must be available to help vulnerable people in need now."