Suicides rates rose sharply in Europe between 2007 and 2009 as the financial crisis drove unemployment up, with Greece and Ireland worst affected.

However, rates of road deaths in the region fell during the same period, possibly because higher numbers of jobless people led to lower car use, according to an initial analysis of data from ten EU countries published in medical journal The Lancet.

The ten countries include six - Austria, Britain, Finland, Greece, Ireland and the Netherlands - that had been EU members before 2004, and four - the Czech Republic, Hungary, Lithuania and Romania - that joined afterwards.

In 2008, suicides among people aged younger than 65 in the pre-enlargement states rose by almost 7% over 2007, the study said.

Ireland saw a rise of 13%, only second behind Greece at 17%, according to the research.

‘This is... consistent with historical studies that show immediate rises in suicides associated with 'early indicators' of crisis, such as turmoil in the banking sector, which precipitates later unemployment,’ the study said.

In the four post-enlargement states, the number of suicides rose by 1% in 2008, but accelerated from 2009 when job losses started to bite.

In that year, the relative increase was higher than among the pre-enlargement states, which have a wider social safety net.

Only Austria bucked the suicide trend, with 5% less self-inflicted mortality in 2009 compared with 2007.

Unexpectedly, however, Finland, which like Austria has widespread support for the unemployed, saw an increase in suicides of just over 5% in the same period.

Overall, mortality from all causes in the 10 countries remained stable.

This was because deaths from road accidents fell substantially, especially in the eastern countries, as car use retreated due to the economic crisis and unemployment.

The letter is authored by five specialists in public health, led by David Stuckler of the University of Cambridge. The data is preliminary, and further research will cast a wider net across Europe.

Mr Stuckler said the researchers did not yet have enough data to make a worthwhile estimate of how many deaths in total could be linked to the financial crisis, but that is something they plan to do in future work.

‘In particular, we want to understand better why some individuals, communities, and entire societies are especially vulnerable, yet some seem more resilient to economic shocks,’ the researchers wrote.

He said he feared the social and health costs of the recent global economic downturn would turn out to be high.

‘We can already see that the countries facing the most severe financial reversals of fortune, such as Greece and Ireland, had greater rises in suicides,’ he said.