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The eurozone financial crisis has stretched into its third year. And as NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports in this Letter from Europe, one of the most serious effects of the economic downturn has been an alarming spike in suicides in debt-burdened Greece, Ireland and Italy.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Last Wednesday, about a thousand people gathered in central Rome for a candlelit vigil to honor Italy's economic victims. Statistics show that from 2009 to 2010, some 400 small-business owners took their lives. And there have already been 23 crisis-related suicides since January. Many victims left notes saying they could no longer cope with frozen bank loans, late client payments and soaring taxes. The Italian state alone owes more than $90 billion to entrepreneurs. Some have been waiting to be paid for up to two years. The head of an Italian small-business association, Giuseppe Bortolussi, says the tight austerity measures imposed by the European Union have created a hostile climate for entrepreneurs.

Many see suicide as an act of rebellion, he says, against a deaf and insensitive system that fails to grasp the seriousness of the situation. For example, the day after Easter, 26-year-old Francesco Todesco locked himself in his car, and died from exhaust fumes. He had been forced to close his business as a shop-window designer for Harrods and Gucci, and took up tree-cutting in his native Tuscan town. But he was undone by the credit crunch.

In 2011, an average 31 businesses shut down every day. Most of them were small- and medium-size companies that represent 95 percent of the Italian economy. Regional business associations report the trend is growing rapidly. Two young women whose fathers took their lives last fall, have set up a counseling hotline to help desperate entrepreneurs, and assure them they are not alone.

In Ireland, which is still reeling from its real estate market bust, the suicide rate has also risen with the crisis. Government statistics show that the majority of victims were men; average age, 36. Nearly half were unemployed, and suffering from financial hardships and loneliness.

Greece once had one of Europe's lowest suicide rates. But as it enters its third year of recession and stringent austerity, 30 percent of the population lives under the poverty line, and its suicide rate has soared. The most dramatic case was that of 77-year-old retired pharmacist Dimitris Christoulas, who earlier this month shot himself in front of Parliament in Athens. He left a note saying he did not want to end up scrounging for food in garbage bins.

His suicide unleashed days of street protests as Greek public opinion identified with this family man who had always lived by the book. Christoulas' powerful gesture soon made him a symbol throughout crisis-ridden Europe, of a hardworking and rule-abiding middle class which is being made to pay the highest price of the eurozone crisis.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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