Self-immolation out of despair
Trouw, 27 March 2013

Nobody ever asked Tsventsislav Vasilev how he was doing. Not once in the more than twenty years he lived with his wife and children in extreme poverty in the mining town of Radnevo. Not when his daughter left for Germany, leaving her children in his care. Not when his debts had run so high he had to explain himself in court. Not when he gave away his shoes and his watch, because he said he did not not need them anymore. Only after he had poured gasoline over himself and had set himself to fire, it became obvious that something was quite not right.

The 53-year old Vasilev was neither the first nor the last Bulgarian this month to make this dramatic decision. Two preceded him, three followed. Four of them died, including Mr. Vasilev. Much remains unclear about their motives. As far as we know, only the 26-year old Trayan Marechkov, who was the first to self-immolate, left behind a note. "I give my life for the people, my family and Bulgaria, in the hope that politicians and the government will increase the standard of living of the people", it said.

According to a physician in the hospital where Mr. Marechkov died, his last words were less altruistic: "I am sick of this life." Mr. Vasilev as well said on his arrival in hospital that he hated his existence. Physicians heard similar words from other self-immolators. "I am so sick of it all. There is no bread. I just cannot take it anymore", is how 41-year old Todor Dimitrov supposedly explained his actions.

The self-immolations occur against a background of protests. Since January, in the entire country people protest against poverty and the lack of economical progress. Bulgaria is the poorest Member State of the European Union. Officially, the average monthly wage amounts to around 370 Euro, while the average pensioner receives less than 100 Euro. Especially outside the big cities unemployment and poverty rates run high and many Bulgarians depend for their survival on family members, many of them working abroad.

Psychologists, however, say that poverty alone cannot explain suicide. They also warn against interpreting self-immolation as a political act. According to them, men like Mr. Vasilev, Mr. Dimitrov and Mr. Marechkov act out of a deep existential pain they most likely had been feeling for years, but that remained unnoticed by the outside world.

They are the victims of a non-functioning system of mental health care, said Dr. Plamen Dimitrov, Chairman of the Bulgarian Association of Psychologists. Psychotherapy is not covered by health care insurance and there is no nationwide register of certified therapists. For years, his organisation has been trying to change this. "Politicians just don?t want to spend money on it", he said.

The consequences are disastrous. Anyone with mental issues has to find and pay for his own therapist, something many Bulgarians cannot afford. Instead they turn for help to their family, to drink or to the widely sold anti-depressants. At the same time, young psychotherapists leave the country, as it is impossible for them to built-up a viable practice. And as there is no nationwide network of therapists it is impossible to gather reliable statistical data on how great the psychological need really is.

"The only thing we know for sure is that this year 180 people committed suicide; that Bulgaria bungles at the bottom of all European research on happiness and wellbeing; and that despite all this on average less people receive psychological help than anywhere else in Europe?, said Dr. Dimitrov. The reason? ?Help is simply beyond reach."

Horrified by the suicide statistics and the wave of self-immolations, the Ministry of Health has decided to start an information campaign on suicide. Regional health inspectorates are also asked to identify risk groups. Dr. Dimitrov remains skeptic. "Flyers don't prevent suicide. Only talking to people can do that, by asking them how they are doing", he said.