Suicide rates are skyrocketing in Iran. Image: AFP

Iranians, suffering a raging pandemic as their mismanaged and failed state is crushed by US economic sanctions, are taking their own lives in increasing numbers.

Even the young are resorting to suicide to avoid the harsh realities of a life of suffering and austerity.   

Health Ministry data shows suicide attempts rose 23% in the first three months of the Iranian calendar starting March 20, 2020, compared with the same period the year before.

Local media, citing sociology researchers, revealed a 60% spike in suicide among Iranians from 2015 to 2019.

Hossein Assadbeigi, head of the office of socially vulnerable people at the State Welfare Organization of Iran, said that 5,143 people, including 1,517 women, died by suicide in 2019.

Some experts and journalists view the figures skeptically, saying government public health agencies refuse to disclose the true numbers of suicide attempts and fatalities because they point to a simmering social crisis gripping the nation of 85 million.

In recent months, deaths of school students and children under 18 who put an end to their lives spurred by poverty, family problems or lack of access to the means of attending online education in the days of Covid have shocked the Muslim majority nation.

In October 2020, an 11-year-old school student from the southern city of Dayyer in Bushehr province hanged himself in the kitchen of his impoverished family’s rented house.

Mohammad Mousavizadeh’s mother said he killed himself because of the psychological pressure of not having access to a proper smartphone to attend online classes.

In April 2020, an 11-year-old girl referred to only as Zeinab from the penurious Chardavol county of Ilam province hanged herself in an outbuilding. Poverty and a lack of economic prospects, local reports said, convinced her that it wasn’t worth carrying on.

The village where Zeinab lived lacks even basic infrastructure for its 2,500 residents, including landline and mobile phone services, television coverage, a health clinic and paved roads. Her 41-year-old disabled father is unable to work and the family lives on social security subsidies and donations.

In December last year, seven students under 18 took their own lives in the city of Ramhormoz in the oil-rich Khuzestan province.

Representational image. Photo: Iranwire

The southern province bordering the Persian Gulf is the hub of Iran’s petroleum industry but suffers from critical poverty and underdevelopment and has been continuously neglected by successive administrations over the past four decades.

Of the 27,000 school students in Ramhormoz, at least 4,000 are not able to afford smartphones and tablets to take part in online classes.

Such heart-rending stories, however, rarely make it to the front pages of national newspapers and are scarcely mentioned by state radio and TV stations.

A journalist covering Iranian society in Tehran says a charitable reading is that the media are trying to enforce an ethical standard by not giving coverage to suicide.

“Nonetheless, the truth is that every social dilemma in this society is ignored in the initial phases of emergence,” said Mohammad Bagherzadeh, a society reporter with the reformist Shargh Daily.

“The efforts of institutions close to power, including the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting [the state TV and radio broadcaster] are pivoted on cover-up, while there are tens of examples demonstrating that this approach backfires and merely contributes to the deepening of the crisis.”

Bagherzadeh believes the rise of the number of people self-harming is the by-product of a number of factors.

“Indubitably, sanctions, the economic pressure resulting from the Covid-induced unemployment and psychological distress resulting from the lockdowns play a role in the growing number of people who die by suicide,” he says.

“That said, we should not look at these numbers as a short-term development.

“Iran’s former health minister had said the rate of Iranians suffering from depression has multiplied over the past couple of decades, and one of the outcomes of this depression emanating from economic hardships is the spike in suicide rates, which cannot be remedied immediately.”

An Iranian woman wearing a mask walks past a mural displaying Iran’s national flag in Tehran, March 4, 2020. Photo: AFP/Atta Kenare

Experts say socio-economic variables such as poverty, financial crises, indebtedness, unemployment and economic shocks are directly linked to suicides and self-harm.

The absence of professional opportunities and financial uncertainty are seen as exacerbating mental health issues in teenagers. Public health emergencies such as the coronavirus pandemic make these gloomy situations worse.

Steve Hanke, Johns Hopkins University professor of applied economics, ranks countries annually in a Misery Index. The index is a round-up of unemployment, inflation and bank lending rates in countries.

The latest edition of the index in 2019 conferred an inglorious 3rd rank to Iran out of 95 states, identifying it as a country “burdened with the weight of a non-credible central bank and a junk currency,” trailing only Venezuela and Argentina as the world’s most miserable economies.

A wretched economy, beleaguered by external pressure in the form of massive sanctions and bad statecraft at home, has twisted the arms of thousands of Iranians to opt for emigration and is pushing many others to suicide.

“A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics showed that higher county-level poverty concentration is associated with increased suicide rates among youths aged 5 to 19 years,” said Amir Afkhami, an associate professor of psychiatry, global health and history at George Washington University.

“Of course, this would indicate that societies with higher economic inequality tend to experience higher pediatric suicide rates.

“[Iran’s] plummeting economy, lack of prospects for jobs, and an overall absence of social outlets have contributed to the growing suicide problem.

“Of course, the country’s staggering narcotics epidemic, which has grown exponentially in the past decade, has also increased the rate of suicides,” he told Asia Times.

“Iran’s policymakers will have to address broader social, economic, and political determinants of suicide in Iranian society, including the lack of jobs, entertainment, and social outlets, that have fueled this growing public health challenge among an increasingly restless and hopeless Iranian youth,” Afkhami said.

Yet, the uptick in suicides among Iranians should be viewed against the backdrop of a host of psychological pressures the pandemic has imposed on households worldwide, which the experts say has impinged more acutely on the vulnerable and poorer societies.

The parents of an 11-year-old boy who committed suicide by hanging in October 2020 in the southern Iranian city of Dayyer. Image: Twitter

A number of academic studies show that the pandemic has had monumental effects of the mental health of people in societies hit hardest by the contagion and where the strictest lockdowns were rolled out. These have brought feelings of isolation, depression, anxiety and have raised the risk of suicide. 

Abdie Kazemipur, a professor of sociology and the chair of ethnic studies at the University of Calgary, said, “At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, some prematurely declared that this was a democratic disease, that is, it is affecting all groups of people alike.

“But, as time passed, it became obvious that, like many other societal problems, coronavirus hit the disadvantaged segments of populations such as the poor, the racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants and others much more heavily.

“Internationally, it became clear that the countries that managed better were the younger – as opposed to older – democracies, those with high trust and confidence in government, those with a stronger sense of solidarity among people, and, finally, those with better health and economic infrastructure.

“Iran is unfortunately disadvantaged in all the above. Hence, it is particularly vulnerable,” he told Asia Times.

Although acts of self-harm in a cloistered and fragile society such as Iran are mostly a desperate response to the inadequacies that strip people of their hopes and damage their opportunities and rights, they sometimes take on symbolic forms to impart messages and prompt national or universal awakenings.

On September 2, 2019, Sahar Khodayari, a 29-year-old Iranian woman set herself on fire outside of a court in Tehran after she was told she might face six months in prison for trying to enter an all-male sports stadium and watch a football match. She died seven days later.

Khodayari was a fan of Esteghlal FC, a popular football club in the capital, and came to be known as the Blue Girl for the colors of her favorite squad.

Her self-immolation turned into a cause celebre and prompted an international outcry, including an announcement by the world football governing body FIFA that Iran would be banned from international matches if it did not allow women into stadiums.

Kazemipur of the University of Calgary believes Iran has gone through three periods of major social transformation with significant impacts on suicide trends.

These include rapidly rising inequality, a frequent oscillation between seasons of hope and despair, and the rapid expansion of social media, making it easier for people to compare their conditions with those of others who are in better shape.

“Part of this built-up sense of frustration gets discharged through migration to other countries, as is evident in the larger-than-normal rates of out-migration among Iranians, but the rest have to live and deal with their circumstances, and when they cannot escape those conditions through migration, they escape them through suicide,” he said.