RIGA, Latvia — Poverty in Latvia is the result of a legacy of trauma, and lack of treatment following the country’s long history of political violence, oppression and exposure to war. In 1990 the population of Latvia peaked at 2.6 million with the collapse of the Soviet Union. With free international movement possible for the first time, mass emigration was the beginning of increasing poverty in Latvia.
The relative instability of the transition from communism to capitalism brought with it a mass exodus of educated Latvians from the country and large groups of men turning to alcohol, risky behaviors and suicide. With an average annual income of USD$14,600, many factories are empty and there are few highly-skilled workers. Many children have been left behind by their parents.
Latvia joined the E.U. in 2004 with the intention of aiding its transition to sustainable capitalism. The 2008 global financial crisis hit the Latvian economy hard, and cut GDP by 18 percent. Coupled with record emigration, Latvia has high incidence of suicide, and 80 percent of these deaths are men. Latvia with a highly imbalanced population and a small workforce.
Latvia has experienced a massive drop in its birth rate and the population is declining. In February 2016, 1,692 children were born and 2,463 people died. Emigration has risen to 40,000 people per year, and the population is predicted to drop from 1.9 million today to 1.3 million by 2030.
The group that has endured the transition is educated single mothers who choose to remain single, work and care for their children. With so few people working and unemployment rates so high poverty in Latvia is a pressing concern for government officials.
The Latvian Government is offering incentives for expatriates to return to Latvia like student loan programs and jobs in civil services. So far this has not lured any Latvians in the U.K., Ireland and Germany to come home.
Psychology research in Latvia indicates a link between poverty and the country’s complex history of oppression. Prior to independence, there was no acknowledgment of trauma or stress related disorders, and research into PTSD and other disorders was not available until 2008. Additionally, it is documented that psychiatry in the Soviet Union was employed as an oppressive measure to persecute people who opposed the Soviet regime.
Two large-scale studies on the long-term impact of political oppression and long-term displacement conducted in Latvia by Vidner and Nucho indicated long-term trauma from persecution and restrictions, and health and mental health issues related to political violence. Today, 50 percent of Latvians reported flashbacks and 33 percent reported nightmares. Studies show higher rates of violence against children and alcohol abuse among adults in rural Latvia.
A 2014 study based on a group comprised of 10,696 adults from both Latvia and Lithuania examined the impact of childhood struggles on young people aged 18-25. This study revealed that 50 percent of youth faced traumatic experiences as children, which served as predictors for significant mental health problems in adulthood. Given the dates of these studies, these could be the same children now fleeing their country for a different life, never having been treated for what happened in their youth.
It is essential that future research in the Baltic region focuses on trauma to develop practices for targeted treatments. In a nation that is still transitioning from a period of authoritarian government to economic independence, it is vital that Latvia’s government seeks to understand the issues driving its people into poverty or out of the country.
– Addison Grace Evans