As Economic Woes Deepen, Greece Seeing More Suicides

Greece’s dire financial crisis is taking a toll on the nation’s psyche in more ways than mere worries over whether the economy will survive. A team of technical experts, primarily from the European Union (EU), are in Greece monitoring the state of its debt-stricken economy – and they are well aware of how dire the situation is.

One sign of exactly how bad things are is the fact that the rate of suicide – especially among men desperate because they can no longer provide for their families – has increased by 40 percent in the last year.  Suicide help lines report a deluge of calls  – 5,000 in the first eight months of 2011 compared with 2,500 for all of 2010.  The typical caller tends to be male, age 35 to 60 and financially ruined.  “He has also lost his core identity as a husband and provider, and he cannot be a man any more according to our cultural standards,” clinical psychologist Aris Violatzis said.  “Our times are dominated by depression and even mourning for the loss of everything people had managed to achieve in their lives,” Violatzis said. “Suicide is always due to a combination of several reasons but the economic crisis is becoming a major factor,” he noted.  According to the World Health Organization, Greece traditionally occupied last place in the global list of suicides, but the numbers currently are rising fast.

Exact statistics are difficult to confirm, but unofficial figures showed a rise to 391 suicides in 2009 from 328 in 2007.  Experts believe that the reality is much worse.  To avoid traumatizing their families, some crash their cars in what police typically report as accidents.  Additionally, families often cover up a suicide so their loved ones can be buried in the Greek Orthodox church.  “The real suicide rate is many times the official one,” Violatzis said.  “Right now we have the biggest increase in Europe.”

The Greek health ministry and Klimaka, a charitable organization, place the number of suicides even higher.  They believe that the suicide rate has doubled since the crisis began to approximately six per 100,000 residents a year.  A suicide help line at Klimaka at one time received from four to 10 calls a day, but “now there are days when we have up to 100,” according to Violatzis.

With speculation that Greece is on the brink of default more than 16 months after it received the biggest bailout on record, the country is the focus of the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) talks.  Some do not believe that time is running out to solve a crisis that began two years ago but, with markets far from appeased and enormous job losses, tax increases and out-of-control inflation, Greeks no longer believe what their politicians say.

“The belt is now at the eighth notch, it’s become so tight there are only two more left, but nothing has improved,” said Georgios Valsamis, a taxi driver who joined a barrage of strikes that brought public transport to a halt.  “People in power, MPs, they’re like robots, they do whatever those foreigners (the EU, ECB and IMF) say.  We are no longer willing to be a laboratory for failed policies.  Low-income earners, those who have been really hit, can’t endure much more.”

“The worst part is perhaps psychological because there is no light at the end of the tunnel, no source of hope,” said Dr Thanos Dokos who directs Eliamep, a think-tank in Athens. “When you make sacrifices and you know they will come to something you don’t mind. But that is not the case.”

In addition to desperation, there is a collective sense of guilt and depression – more dangerous, say analysts, than even the social tensions that threaten to tear Greece apart.  A short time ago, hundreds of Greeks crowded a lecture hall to hear Fotini Tsalikoglou, a noted psychology professor, speak on “the power of loss”.  “Greeks feel like they are in a bad dream,” she said.  “You wake up not knowing what will be overturned today of what was overturned yesterday.  A common thread that unites people is the experience of fear and desperation.”