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 firstname.lastname@example.org.