notes on suicide

All the links are to Greek sites, either because they are primary sources or because English-language media did not cover the stories.

By now, I suppose everyone knows about Dimitris Christoulas, the retired pharmacist who shot himself dead in the central square of Athens, in front of the Greek Parliament.  His suicide note blamed the government, which he compared to the collaborationist government during the German occupation of Greece during World War II, and his reluctance to scavenge in city trash bins for food, for his decision to end his life.

The government was quick to distance itself from the situation.  They cloaked his death in a thousand lightweight “oh how sads” while some even accused the pharmacist of being responsible for the crisis itself:  for example, the second to the Minister of the Interior, Paris Koukoulopoulos, said that instead of killing himself, he should have explained to the government how pharmaceutical expenditures more than doubled in five years (the government blames pharmacists and doctors for this).

Similarly, Panos Beglitis, currently just a parliamentarian but previously the Minister of Defense, appeared to suggest that the pharmacist was to blame for his poverty because he threw away his money, either on himself or his children, rather than accepting that a person with health problems (Mr. Christoulas had recently been diagnosed with cancer) might have a hard time making ends meet after the extremely harsh cuts to his pension; in fact, he used the Greek idiom “either he ate the money, or his children did.”

This phrase is extremely politicized in Greece, because the current Vice President of Greece, Thodoros Pangalos, claimed that “we all (Greeks) ate the money together,” meaning that all Greeks equally shared in the corruption and benefited personally from bankrupting the state.  Since Pangalos is a very rich landowner, and the grandson of the dictator of Greece, this particular line from this particular politician became an instant battle cry for the young Greeks who in fact neither had any part in nor benefited in any way from the political corruption that Pangalos appears to assign to them.

(Despite his wealth, Pangalos claimed that he “couldn’t afford” to pay the new special property tax (the tax: €7,500; his and his wife’s income: over €800,000) that has had a particularly harsh toll on pensioners.)

It has been often reported that in Greece, suicides have increased 40% in the past two years, due to the crisis.  The ‘typical’ suicide here is a 36 year old man who has lost his job.

Anyway, that’s all old news.  Up here where I live, in the quiet and unassuming region of Thrace, which is a mostly agricultural area producing cotton, sunflowers, tobacco, and olives, we seem to be a world away from the drama of Parliament and the square.  But here things are not so idyllic as one might think.  The crisis has hit Thrace particularly hard.  Our region’s unemployment is now 22.8%, the highest in Greece.  The number hides the many more people who were fired from black-market employment, who are underemployed (one of the newest massive social problems in Greece are the severely underemployed, people who are stuck in jobs making only a few euros/week, and ineligible for unemployment benefits much higher than their current salaries) or the young people who haven’t even been able to find a first job (unemployment for wannabe-workers under 25 is over 50%).

This past weekend was Easter weekend here in Greece (the Greek Church uses the Julian calendar).  Our region of Thrace lost three more people to suicide because of the crisis:  a woman in a village in the mountains of Xanthi, a young man in a village in Rodopi, and an older man in the city of Alexandroupoli.  All three of these suicides here this weekend were by hanging.

In our quiet agricultural area, suicide is becoming a social issue for the first time.

In response to the growing suicide problem I suppose, the Greek government has now decided to withhold pensions from mentally ill retirees.  When seeking medical help for suicidal thoughts results in losing the only income for an entire family – it is very common now in Greece that a single pensioner is supporting his children and grandchildren on his pension, due to the same widespread unemployment I just referred to – how on earth can anyone actually bring himself to seek help?  And once a pensioner does commit suicide, his family is left completely destitute.

The way it will work is as follows:  when a pensioner is committed to a mental health institution, as suicidal people often are for their own protection, his pension will be reduced by 50% to 80%.

Perhaps it makes sense to the politicians; after all, what would he need his pension for?  He has a roof over his head, so he wouldn’t need to pay his rent on the home he shares with his wife, children, and grandchildren, who may have no other income; the hospital is feeding him, so he wouldn’t need to be able to purchase food for his wife at home, or the other family members dependent on his pension for survival.  Sure, they’re taking care of his needs in the short term, but what happens when he leaves?  He’s been evicted from his home for nonpayment, he owes back payments on utilities, and his wife is starving to death.

Yes, the pension is meant only to support the retiree, not his entire family, but the reality of Greek life is different now:  many retirees support entire families because that’s what high unemployment means in reality.

The Greek government’s spectacular failure to recognize and appreciate the massive social change brought about by the crisis so far is unforgivable.  

According to recent statistics, the three prefectures of Greece with the highest suicide rate (a prefecture is like a state; there are 51 prefectures total) are Rethymno (on the island of Crete), Rodopi, and Zakynthos.  I live in Rodopi, so this hits close to home for me.

While I don’t wish suicide on anyone, I do understand it.  The psychological toll of the crisis can be extreme, especially when there is physical or mental illness and debt that must be paid.  Even just the upkeep of a home, free from debt, can be impossible when there is no income.  While suicide is far from an ‘easy way out,’ it’s certainly a fast way out, and it does reduce the hungry mouths by one.  When an entire people is told by its government on a regular basis, “there’s no light at the end of the tunnel,” can there be any hope for struggling families?

The Suicide Helplines in Greece are 1018 and 801 801 9999.  They are 24-hour, 7-day toll free numbers and a caller can remain anonymous.  The email is help@suicide-help.gr.  

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20 thoughts on “notes on suicide

    • thanks Andrew, I think I will. Things calmed down here quite a lot after the New Deal went through, or rather, the politicians got themselves into an orgy of anti-illegal-immigration furvor in the run-up to the elections on May 6. I suspect that there will be a lot more to talk about after the elections happen and we start getting hit with the really scary ‘reforms.’ Some of the ‘new new new measures’ are really intense.

  1. It’s a desperately bleak picture you paint and 100% true. What is the feeling on the street about defaulting and pulling out of the Euro? Equally bleak outlook but it does seem that the pain would be immediate and things could only get better more quickly than in your current limbo.

    • AC, the feeling on that has and remains deeply divided – there is a large group of people (S and I included) who believe that getting out of the Euro is the only livable solution, but there is an even larger group that is afraid of the short term (1-5 year) hardship that it would bring. For the time being, all discussion of the economic crisis has been shushed (hard to believe, you have to be in Greece to understand how extreme the change has been) in the run-up to elections – now the focus is 90% on illegal immigration, which, while perhaps a problem, is by no means the core issue in the election. The problem of course is that the two big parties are both already in the government and have performed terribly, so they desperately needed a new issue to campaign on. Unless you are actually in Greece I don’t think it’s possible to even comprehend the rapidity with which Greek media coverage of the economy went from 99% of airtime to around 10% of airtime in the past few weeks. Now all they talk about are the new “concentration camps” for the illegal immigrants, with a sprinkling of the new taxes that we will have to pay after the elections go through (but very very vaguely, lest anyone be scared off from voting for the two major parties!).

      While I don’t know anyone who plans to vote for either of the two major parties, votes are so split between the other 9 that the two will certainly be in the top again, meaning the prime minister will stay the same and will be able to tell the EU/Troika that Greeks are “clearly supporting” the current regime (which is absurd).

      Suicides and unemployment are the growth industries in Greece at the moment.

    • I had assumed that the square suicide would but since it didn’t, I’m glad I decided to post about it. It was particularly tragic, he shot himself during morning rush hour in front of hundreds of people. He was an upstanding member of the community and a very balanced and mentally healthy individual by all accounts.

  2. Heidi,
    I hadn’t heard word one about the suicide in front of Parliament – let alone a response.

    We are too busy talking about how the Advance Team for the Secret Service was caught with prostitutes in Colombia while they were supposed to be preparing the way for a Presidential visit. We’re on day 3 of that story.

    And, how the GSA (General Services Administration) had a 800,000 conference/party in Vegas on the tax payer dime. Allegedly. We’re on day 5 or so of that.

    And, of course, today is tax day. So, the news is all over that.

    And, Prom costs. How the average American is spending about $1,600 on Prom this year. Some over 2K.

    It’s a busy news cycle. Where are we suppose to fit in people dying? We have no room for that story. Besides, it’s so depressing. We’d rather just talk about Prom dresses.

    I’ve passed along your post on the Cooking at Cafe D FB page. I hope people Like and share the link.

    Americans don’t want to talk about poverty. It’s taboo. But, perhaps if we start talking about another country’s everyday men and women choosing to hang themselves…maybe we can at least talk about hunger – and corruption – even if it’s not our own.
    ~ Dana

    • Dana, I didn’t realize that the Syntagma Square suicide wasn’t news in the US. It was such a big deal here that I assumed it was big news everywhere, but I shouldn’t have assumed that at all – as you say, the US media has a whole long list of important prom-related stories to cover!!

      Right now the Greek story du jour is about the former Minister of Defense Tsohatzopoulos (not the other former Min. of Defense Beglitis I mention above) who has just been indicted for massive money laundering in off-shore companies and generalized corruption in cahoots with the Germans and so on. It’s quite the story — just in time for the election. Anything to take the emphasis off the economy!

      I think the media and the politicians have actually managed to convince themselves that Greek voters will vote issues like illegal immigration instead of the economy. It’s pretty funny.

      Apart from all that, I can’t believe that anyone would spend $1600 on a prom. I didn’t even go to my prom, though, I was too “counter-culture” in those days for something so silly (and I didn’t have a date, even more important hahaha!!)

  3. The Syntagma Square suicide was in the UK press, plus I saw it on another Greek interest blog. Not much detail though. It was good to be better informed with more on your blog here about similar suicides throughout Greece. Thank you for that.
    We love your recipes, but I also find the ‘real life in Greece NOW’ blogs particularly interesting and helpful to understand the situation.

  4. I saw the news of the pharmacist’s death on Yahoo news. Thank you for your insightful view of the problems in Greece. Here in the USA, I know that many people who are struggling with financial problems and unemployment also must deal with the judgments and prejudices of others in society. I find this a troubling trend here. There is a lack of empathy and compassion for the poor, the unemployed, the homeless. Those who judge are so quick to condemn another for problems beyond their control. Yet, they don’t seem to realize, unless one is heir to a large fortune, the line is very thin between the haves and the have nots. It only takes one medical crisis or the death or injury of a breadwinner to start any family down that slippery slope. We are becoming a world in which we are not our brother’s keeper.

  5. Thankyou Heidi, this was a wonderful thought provoking post. Most material being written about the Greek Financial crisis is not looking at the human cost. You and your readers may be interested in a post I wrote on the crisis. It is a laymans explanation on some of the issues that led to Greece’s problems. But I make the point that it is the little person who is suffering and not those who caused the crisis. You can find it here.

    http://phillthedill.com/2012/03/02/the-greek-financial-crisis-explained/

  6. Pingback: The Greek Financial Crisis Explained « phill THE dill

  7. I had no idea it was so bad. I read about the pharmacists suicide and the rioting that followed but I think the only reason I noticed it was because of my ties to Greece. It was a very small blip on the screen over here and most people probably missed it. I’m scared for Greece and wonder where they will go from here.

  8. Pingback: The Real Cost Of The Greek Economic Crisis « phill THE dill

  9. I hadn’t heard about this at all, and I’m only in Denmark, fer cryin’ out loud! But the news here is also obsessed with bad-things-immigrants-do (at least it’s not prom dress, sheesh CNN).

    Immigrants, guaranteed to be used when you are desperate to cover up the real issues at play…

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