Nine years after the Greek debt crisis began, an alarming toll continues

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A woman walks past graffiti outside the Athens' Academy in 2012. For almost a decade the people of Greece have lived with unemployment, insecurity and debt.

ATHENS, Greece — Greece’s decade-long economic crisis has taken a heavy toll: Hundreds of thousands of jobs were lost, incomes were slashed and taxes were raised. Hopes for the future were dashed.

For Anna, 68, the crisis had particularly devastating consequences. Her husband, a retired bus driver, killed himself in a park two years ago at age 66 after a series of pension cuts deepened his despair.

“He kept saying, ‘I’ve worked so many years. What will I have to show for it? How are we going to live?’” said Anna, who asked that her full name not be published to protect her family’s privacy. After two years of therapy, she now volunteers to help others struggling with mental health issues.

Slogans on a wall in central Athens, in 2018.

Depression and suicide rates rose alarmingly during the Greek debt crisis, health experts and studies say, as the country’s creditors imposed strict austerity measures that cut wages, increased taxes and undermined the ability of health services to respond to a crisis within a crisis.

“Mental health has deteriorated significantly in Greece, with depression being particularly widespread, as a result of the economic crisis,” Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, said in a November report. That has led to overcrowding at psychiatric hospitals and clinics and a 40 per cent increase in suicides from 2010 to 2015, the report said.

For those fighting the problems on the ground, the trend does not seem to be abating. The mental health organization Klimaka reported a 30 per cent rise in calls to its suicide hotline last year, and a comparable rise in visits to its day center.

“The financial crisis has increased people’s vulnerability to suicide,” said Kyriakos Katsadoros, Klimaka’s director. “Some even ask about euthanasia.”

Health workers during a general strike in Athens in 2017. Annual state spending on mental health was halved in 2012, and it has been trimmed further each year since then.

Suicide rates in Greece remain relatively low for Europe, with five suicides per 100,000 people compared with a regionwide average of 15.4, according to World Health Organization data for 2016, the most recent available. The rate of increase is high, however. It spiked from 3.3 per 100,000 to 5 between 2010 to 2016.

The highest annual increase came in 2015, the year strikes and social upheaval reached a climax as Greece’s leftist-led government wrangled with the country’s international creditors over the terms of a third bailout.

The suicide rate then dropped in 2016 and 2017, police figures show, only to rise again in the first 10 months of 2018, according to police figures that also show that suicides among those ages 22 and under more than doubled.

Many suicides in Greece go unreported because of the Orthodox Church’s reluctance to provide burial services to those who take their own lives, although the church’s stance is changing, nongovernmental organizations say.

A senior citizen leans against the door of a closed bank as he queues up to collect his pension outside a National Bank of Greece branch in Athens, in 2015.

Christopher Furlong

The Greek Health Ministry set up a committee of mental health experts in November to prepare awareness campaigns, as well as plans to train general practitioners to better detect depression and other mental health issues. In the meantime, the health system’s struggles to address the problem are evident.

At Evangelismos, one of the capital’s largest state hospitals, dozens of patients were being treated in the corridors of the psychiatric ward during a visit in April, “an unacceptable situation,” the Council of Europe’s anti-torture committee said in a report published in June.

In the summer, the hospital’s workers’ union complained to a prosecutor that the clinic was accommodating twice the maximum capacity, with foldout beds set up in corridors and in doctors’ offices.

“It’s like a stable,” said Dr. Ilias Sioras, president of the union, adding that people in all states — “catatonic and psychotic” — were being treated in the same space.

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