While Eurozone finance ministers scramble to find a quick solution to the European debt crisis, the economic collapse has already taken a deadly toll in Greece, the vortex of the problem.
Suicide rates are skyrocketing in a country already beset by massive job cuts, austerity spending, slashed pensions, and soaring taxes.
The economic numbers are stark.
Greece’s gross domestic product declined more than 7 percent year-over-year in the second quarter. Spending cuts and tax hikes amount to about one-fifth of the GDP.
Even after two huge multi-billion-euro bailouts, the average Greek household has seen its income plunge by half, according to the Guardian newspaper of the UK.
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Andreas Loverdos, Greece’s Minister for Health, said last month that suicides jumped by as much as 40 percent in the first few months of this year.
Unemployment in Greece is now almost 17 percent and sure to keep rising as the Athens government is mandated to make deeper cuts in the public sector.
Perhaps the most spectacular case of attempted suicide was a businessman in Thessaloniki named Apostolos Polyzonis, who self-immolated outside a bank that forced him into bankruptcy by recalling a loan. However, he survived and remains hospitalized.
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, Polyzonis told reporters.
We hardly leave the house anymore; 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.”
Even those with jobs are under great stress and pressure.
According to media reports, in September, Michael Kriadis, the managing director of an Athens advertising firm called Take Vitamin Ad, jumped to his death from his fourth-floor office after a proposed merger with another company failed.
Journalist Costas Cavathas told BBC: Michael never borrowed any money personally, he always paid his taxes on time. 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.”
To counter the growing social crisis, suicide prevention centers are springing up – one is called Klimaka. According to a BBC report, this non-governmental organization is fielding four times as many calls since the economic crisis erupted in 2009.
“Nobody knows the actual number of suicides but we see this from our work, day in and day out,” said Aris Violatzis, a clinical psychologist and administrator of the scientific department for Klimaka, according to the Toronto Star newspaper.
“The economic environment is the pathogen and suicide is the symptom. The desperation and hopelessness is a very important factor, combined with people losing their identity -- a father who can no longer provide, a mother who can’t raise her children, both feeling that they’ve failed.”
Psychologist Eleni Bekiari, who works with Klimaka, explained to the BBC that a powerful stigma against suicide exists in Greek culture. Indeed, the Greek Orthodox Church won't conduct burial rites for those who have killed themselves.
Consequently, the number of suicides in Greece is probably vastly under-reported.
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, Bekiari told the BBC. Greece used to have the lowest suicide rate in Europe.
She added: 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.”
One caller who sought help from Klimaka, unemployed George Barcouris, told BBC: “There are thousands in Greece who have been going through a similar experience to mine... our problems are social not mental.”
Violatzis told media: “The [suicide hotline] callers are primarily men between the ages of 40 and 60 with families who had led productive lives. Now they feel destroyed. People get ill and depressed when their self-concept is incongruent with their reality.”
He also noted: “Greeks have been raised with the belief that we’re not bad people, we’re not lazy. It’s the tourists who lie under the sun. Greeks work under the sun. So we are having a hard time accepting the view from Europe that Greeks are destroying the world, economically. We have been devalued as a people, as if the rest of the planet would still be prosperous if Greece wasn’t here.”
A local psychiatrist named Eva Maria Tsapaki in Heraklion in the Greek island of Crete told The Wall Street Journal that the country’s economic collapse has led to a “new phenomenon of entrepreneurs with no prior history of mental illness who are found dead every other week. It’s very unusual.”
Meanwhile, as more despondent Greeks take their lives, more homeless people are crowding into Athens streets and personal bankruptcies have surged. Not surprisingly, crime rates and illegal drug use have also climbed.
Ada Alamanou, program coordinator at a shelter run by Klimaka, told the Toronto Star: “The homeless population has gone up by 20 to 25 percent. The difference is that these people don’t have an underlying mental health problem or a drug and alcohol problem. They haven’t had run-ins with the law. They have a medium to high level of education. They used to work, in everything from sales to the health profession. They were small-business owners. These are people who never expected to find themselves in this situation.”
In addition, more people, even adults and the middle-aged, have moved back into their elderly parents’ homes.
Effie Stamatogiannopoulou, a nurse, told the Toronto Star: “The Greek family has always been strong but the pressures now are too great. When the parents die, the pensions they were receiving are gone but the children are still unemployed, so then they have no money to live on. Some have moved into abandoned houses and they come to us for food.”
Stamatogiannopoulou partially blames the Greek people themselves for the financial catastrophe they are now trapped in.
“We were drowning in EU money,’’ she said. “The banks practically begged us to take out loans. Buy a house! Buy a car! Take a holiday! It was all so easy and it became a trap. The debts are still there, the interest rate has gone up, but our income has gone down. There is no social justice in these measures. Poor people become poorer.”
Waves and waves of strikes are also damaging the Greek psyche.
An Athens taxi driver told the Guardian: The belt is now at the eighth notch, it's become so tight there are only two more left, but nothing has improved. 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.
But things may get ever worse. The Greek economy is expected to shrink for a fourth consecutive years next year – suggesting years and years of more austerity, and likely more suicides.