Confronting suicide as Greek social problems mount
- 17 October 2011
- From the section Europe
Early one morning last week George Barcouris sat in front of his computer in his Athens flat and typed "suicide" into Google.
Out of work at the age of 60, he was sure he was never going to get another job in a country where the unemployment rate is nearly 17% and rising.
Without any help from relatives or friends it was a matter of weeks before his landlord would evict him for failing to pay the rent.
"The nights were the worst," he says.
"I started thinking, what future do I have? It would be better if I just die in my sleep but that never happened, so I started thinking about killing myself."
It was after one such night that he decided to search online for an easy way of ending his life.
Fortunately for him the first thing that his search brought up was Greece's suicide prevention helpline, Klimaka.
Volunteers at the non-governmental organisation have been answering four times more calls since the crisis began and this year has seen the biggest increase yet, with many of the callers citing economic insecurity as the main cause of their distress.
Last month the Greek Minister for Health, Andreas Loverdos, reported that suicides may have increased by as much as 40% in the first few months of 2011.
"In reality it is very likely that those figures are much higher," says psychologist Dr Eleni Bekiari, who works at Klimaka.
The social stigma surrounding suicide in Greece is enormous, she explains, and is further compounded by the Greek Orthodox Church's refusal to carry out burial ceremonies for anyone who has taken their own life.
"Many callers tell us that they plan to drive their car off a cliff or into a rock to make it seem like an accident so that their family and community will never know it was suicide," says Dr Bekiari.
For others, the strain is just too much and their mental anguish makes a very public appearance.
That was the case with Thessaloniki businessman Apostolos Polyzonis, who last month set fire to himself outside his bank.
The bank had recalled the loan it had given his company forcing him into bankruptcy and leaving him penniless.
Unable to pay for his daughter to continue her university education and fearing the bank would seize his home he went to beg for a loan.
"When they refused to see me I felt so desperate that I just lost it," he says.
He stood outside the bank, doused himself in petrol and set himself alight.
He was taken to hospital and treated for burns but the biggest scars he has suffered, he says, are on the inside.
"My son has just finished his military service and he cannot find a job, my wife and I are both unemployed, and often we have to go without the basics," says Mr Polyzonis.
"We hardly leave the house any more; it has destroyed my family's self respect."
"But I am not alone; millions of Greeks are suffering because a few thousand thieves have squeezed this country dry with their corruption," he says.
It is not only the unemployed who are suffering; even successful businesses are buckling in the economic crisis.
Take Vitamin Ad, a well established advertising company in Athens, which, until recently, was discussing a merger with one of Greece's biggest production houses.
That deal fell through when, in mid-September, the company's managing director, Michael Kriadis, plunged from the balcony of his fourth floor office, leaving behind suicide notes for his family and employees.
It is thought that at the time of Mr Kriadis's death Vitamin Ad had debts of around 400,000 euros (£350,000) but that it was owed nearly 5 million euros by its clients.
"Michael never borrowed any money personally, he always paid his taxes on time," says his friend, journalist Costas Cavathas.
"Recently businessmen are feeling really desperate. Four in Crete, another in Kalamata, and another in Sparta, committed suicide because they could not pay their debts; everybody is on the edge," he says.
The pressure on those managing businesses in Greece is enormous because even if their company is successful, they can often find no money coming in for months at a time.
Over the years a system of deferred payment has built up which allows people to pay for services with post-dated cheques.
All it takes is a few too many of those cheques to bounce and a company can find itself unable to fund its payroll or repay its loans. Smaller, family-run businesses often go without any income at all for months at a time.
"Greece used to have the lowest suicide rate in Europe," says Dr Eleni Bekiari at the Klimaka call centre.
"The burden of the crisis is simply bigger than the ability of this society to deal with it; what this country really needs is a national suicide prevention plan with far more services than we have at the moment," she says.
But the cash-strapped Greek government, which has not provided any extra funding to the helpline, despite the increased demand, is unlikely to be able to implement any new health care policies during a time of such drastic cuts.
At the Klimaka offices George Barcouris has been thrown a lifeline - the organisation has invited him to volunteer at their radio station where the broadcasts focus on depression and social exclusion; they have also promised to help with his housing problems.
He smiles for the first time and says that now he has a reason to leave the house in the morning he feels like a different person; useful, a member of society again.
"I know that there are thousands in Greece who have been going through a similar experience to mine and I want to say that our problems are social not mental," he says.