For eastern Germany, new era means drop in births, rise in suicides

April 05, 1991|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

LEIPZIG, Germany -- In the basement of the local city hall, Josef Fischer has a simple graph that gives a rough idea of the dramatic social upheaval in former East Germany.

It looks like a fir tree, and it charts the number of people living in each age group. At the top, where very old people are grouped, the tree is narrow, but it widens and grows until it reaches the most recent years, where its branches are the longest.

Last year's and this year's branches, however, are a shock. Instead of being the longest, they are stunted; they resemble war or plague years in which nearly whole generations are wiped out. The reason is not a normal catastrophe, but the deep-rooted uncertainty that has caused tens of thousands of parents not to have children.

"People have children when they think they can support them. They don't think they can support them now," said Mr. Fischer, a mathematician who works as a demographer for the Leipzig city planning department.

Although Mr. Fischer's statistics have not yet been completed, the trend of a drastic drop in births is confirmed by hospitals and cities throughout eastern Germany. At the sametime, many areas are reporting a higher-than-average suicide rate, especially among certain professions hard hit by the drastic economic changes.

The drop in births is reported by several hospitals, which say that births were down an average of 10 percent for 1990. This year, the decrease in some areas is expected to reach 30 percent, as general worries about the future that became widespread in mid-1990 show up in the birth statistics now.

"Many mothers don't think they will be able to find day-care centers for their children and know that they can't afford to stop working, so decide not to have children," said Rebecca Weise, head of the gynecology department at the Magdeburg city hospital.

Ms. Weise believes that these economic reasons, along with the flight of mothers to western Germany, will cut the number of births in her hospital from 1,459 in 1990 to fewer than 1,000 this year. If this trend held up for the rest of the year, up to 70,000 fewer children would be born.

Another major trend that is reducing the states' populations is suicide. Telephone counseling services report a large increase in callers, and experts in the field report greatly increased suicidal tendencies, especially among 40- to 60-year-old men who are having troubleadjusting to the new society.

Doctors, for example, are finding the switch from state-run polyclinics to private practices almost impossible to finance. The necessary financing to start a practice has not been forthcoming, and some find that their experience and qualifications are not accepted by western German states.

"They don't feel they have a way out. Their lives are ruined, and there's no one to look after them," said Manfred Sachse of the Rudolf-Virchow Institute of Brandenburg.

Mr. Sachse said 30 doctors have killed themselves in Brandenburg.

Regine Hildebrandt, Brandenburg's minister of social affairs, said the suicide problem was growing and affected more of the population that just doctors.

"Many, many people have taken their lives. It's appalling but not something we can just stop. It's a sign of much larger instability," Ms. Hildebrandt said.

The closure of the polyclinics has also forced many counselors to close up shop, according to Dr. Helmut Spaete, a professor at the University Nerve Clinic in Halle and a specialist in East German suicide. People are being forced to change their behavior almost completely and to fit into a different society, he said, but counseling services are being lost inthe switch from a command to a market economy.

East Germany traditionally had a very high suicide rate of more than 35 per 100,000, the second-highest in the world. Statistics for 1990, Dr. Spaete says, probably will show a decrease to the low 30s because of the great hopes that were awakened last year. This year, however, should see the rate jump back to its old level as people feel let down, resigned and helpless about the future course of events, he predicts.

Ms. Hildebrandt said many victims were middle-aged professionals who found that their East German qualifications were useless in the new system and felt too old to start a new career. On top of this may come worries such as higher rents, lower social welfare payments and the loss of friends whom they saw at work. Many people were drilled to believe that there was work for all and thus take layoffs as a personal rejection, although unemployment is expected to hit every other worker this year.

"You have to remember that in the old system, everyone worked. No one was left out; and although the society was restrictive, there was a sense of belonging, of being needed. Now all they tell you is that everything can be done better by westerners," Ms. Hildebrandt said.

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