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Social Instability Is Driving Greeks Insane

A whole nation's mental health is crumbling under five years of austerity and six months of tough negotiations.

by Pavlos Toubekis
15 July 2015, 10:24am


Pensioners waiting outside a bank in Thessaloniki to receive their 120 euros weekly allowance. Photo: Alexandros Avramidis

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Photos of Young Greeks Protesting the Bailout
What Greece's "No" Referendum Vote Means for Europe
Do Greeks and Germans Hate Each Other

The phrase "I'm depressed" is a common one amongst Greeks: We use it to complain about our romantic relationships, a fight with a friend or being too broke to go on holiday.

Over the past five years however, the phrase has been used more and more literally. The state of the Greek people's mental health has been on a steady decline since the first austerity measures were imposed on the country, in 2010. Additionally, several researchers have spent time looking into how austerity affects people's health – not only in Greece but globally. For example, University of Oxford sociologist David Stuckler made headlines a couple of years ago, when he published a book in which he argued that recession affects one's wellbeing but austerity kills . In The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills Stuckler writes that "in the United States, the suicide rate, which had slowly risen since 2000, jumped during and after the 2007-9 recession."

The Greek Mental Health Research Institute looked into the relation between the Greek financial crisis and depression too. In 2008, 3,3 percent of the population showed symptoms of clinical depression, which is a state that needs to be treated with medication. In 2008, that percentage was doubled. By 2013, 12,3 percent of the Greek population had shown symptoms of clinical depression. With more than 2.5 million Greeks lacking health insurance, one can only speculate as to how the situation could develop over the next few years.

The University of Thessaly recently published an article, claiming that suicides had increased by 35 percent during the Greek recession, with unemployed men and pensioners being the most affected. According to Professor of Psychology Bettina Davou, images of the crisis – homeless people sifting through trash for food, for instance – make people feel hopeless.

These disturbing observations were made during the initial years of the Greek crisis. I couldn't help but wonder what the last couple of weeks – when Greek banks closed, a cap was placed on cash withdrawals and the very real possibility of a Grexit loomed over the country – affected the nation's mental health. To find out, I contacted the President of the Panhellenic Psychological Association, Dr. Parissia Salemi.

VICE: How stressful have the past few months been for the Greek population?
Dr. Parissia Salemi: Since January 2015, there's been a constant stream of tough negotiations between Greece and the institutions with very brief intervals of peace between them. Nobody knew how any of these would play out. No one was certain whether or not what the media was reporting was the truth either. Behind the "simple" presentation of information, every media outlet has their own their specific political opinion and interpretation of current events.

This uncertainty fuels insecurity and basically removes one's ability to control their everyday life . Being unable to predict what comes next creates huge problems, especially for people who already suffer from anxiety disorders.

What sort of problems can occur?
Lately we've seen a lot of people developing anxiety disorders that manifest themselves through various psychosomatic issues – tachycardia, palpitations, chest pains, dizziness, fainting.

Depression is a problem, too. We meet a lot of people who are tired of the situation and show long-term signs of fatigue, pessimism, hopelessness and a sense of futility. They see no reason to try, no future, no hope.

So, can this rise in depression be attributed to the entire financial crisis rather than just the last six months?
Yes, people don't suddenly just become depressed. It's always preceded by a series of predicaments.

Have you noticed any particular trends lately?
We've seen a lot of bank employees develop symptoms of anxiety, because they are faced with situations that they aren't familiar with. For example, pensioner clients who are angry because of the circumstances. The workers are forced to have daily confrontations with them and that makes their bodies react in an extreme way. These symptoms include shortness of breath, dizziness, fainting, vomiting and gastrointestinal disorders.

What do you advise people to do?
I advise people to refrain from watching TV. Greek television isn't exactly dominated by dialogue and information, it's full of people who just scream at each other. We should all keep ourselves informed but we shouldn't take every single person's opinion as a given.

We need to protect ourselves from conflicting information – this also applies to those who haven't experienced any problems (yet). We all need to develop critical thinking. It's also important to remember to take a break and do something that we enjoy – swim, talk with friends, exercise.

How do you expect this situation to develop?
I am not optimistic. First of all, vulnerable groups are being exterminated – financially and psychologically. Europe's way of thinking worries me a lot, it's purely technocratic and economy-centric. It no longer seems to serve the purpose it was intended to serve, which is equality between member states and the defence of human rights.