Austerity Measures, Financial Crises, and Mental Health: The Penultimate Greek Tragedy

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Man spouting fire in Athens. April, 2012 Photo credit: Martin Romo

Approximately a little over a year ago, I was in Athens at a time when Greece was in the fifth year of its long drawn out financial crisis. Austerity measures were looming in the horizon, and a German colleague at my masters program went so far as to tell me that “All Greeks are lazy.” This, of course, made me incredibly upset. When I visited with several friends working and living in Thessaloniki and in Athens, I found that there is clearly a divide between hard-working Greeks, and their stereotype inducing counterparts, who nowadays just happen to control their finances. In fact, isolated incidents of venting frustration at the epicenter of the capital often has several consequences in communities on the fringes, such as Exarhia, or even Glyfada, which are not necessarily subjected to this violence, but must face the dire consequences, regardless, of the mental toll the riots are taking on its citizens.

A good friend and I were walking towards Syntagma Square, in front of the Parliament. We were having a significant discussion, where he was pointing out, “Don’t you think it’s insane how intense people make their personal issues? In the meantime, look at this country, it’s going up in flames.”

“That’s a pretty astute observation,” I said.

“No, look,” he replied. “It’s literally going up in flames.”

And then I noticed the smell of tear gas.

Around 200 riot police formed an eerie wall around the parliament, sporting black tear gas masks. Their aim was to forcibly disperse a crowd of protesters, who had been hitherto peacefully mourning the tragic suicide of a pensioner earlier that very day. We had walked into the last traces of this riot, and whilst automatically subjected to the last traces of tear gas, were fascinated by the soap bubbles in the fountains around Syntagma,  and additionally isolated incidents of debris and fire torches. Certainly, it wasn’t as chaotic as any riot I’ve experienced in South Asia, but the root cause of this particular riot- the pensioner who felt he had no other alternative, was symptomatic of the helplessness, that several of the Greek mates I’ve met, seem to undergo without much say on how the world views them, on a daily basis.

Decreasing Tourism, Greece’s Biggest Industry

DSC_0675Tourism, the main source of income, is decreasing at an ominous rate. Shop owners told me about how April was always the start of the tourist season, but the streets of Monosteraki, the center of the town, and where I was staying, were strangely deserted. Even basic amenities like transportation were improperly manned because of reduced public personnel, as a way of curbing costs (someone should take all the extras from Hungary’s harassment-worthy subway patrol and transplant them into Greece, but that’s another story, altogether).

Mental Health: An Increasing Problem

Mental health is important. Gone are the days when jobs are just easily available to all: Greece faces a 50% unemployment rate for its youth, and moreover, a huge migration outwards, as more sustainable means of providing jobs, has become more prominent elsewhere, causing a brain drain that spirals further and further away from the grasp of its legislators and locals.

“Austerity can turn a crisis into an epidemic,” said David Stuckler, a sociologist at Britain’s Cambridge University who has been studying the health impacts of biting budget cuts in Europe as the euro crisis lurches on.

“Job loss can lead to an accumulation of risks that can tip people into depression and severe mental illness which can be difficult to reverse – especially if people are not getting appropriate care,” Stuckler said, as quoted in a Reuters article from December 2012.

Suicide rates in Greece are increasing at an alarming rate: Suicides rose by 17 percent between 2007 and 2009, and by 40 percent in the first half of 2011 compared with the same period in 2010, according to a report in the Lancet medical journal in 2011.

English: The Greek Parliament in Syntagma Squa...

English: The Greek Parliament in Syntagma Square, Athens, Greece. Photo taken in 2006. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The German Factor

Granted, no one likes footing the bill for others, but does Germany really have to keep introducing austerity measures for others and not themselves? Yes, Angela Markel, Germany’s chancellor, tells us that she is “balancing the budget,” but is it truly not unfair to the Greeks?

Will Greece become another Venezuela, forsaking lives because it is at the mercy of its creditors? Will a legacy of credit-led socialism geared towards spending emerge in a country far from Latin America, but being made to adhere to impossible standards in a true après moi, le déluge fashion, made possible by Germany?

Germany preaches the value of austerity- for others. Being part of a “union,” such as the EU, requires making sure measures appear across all nation states, for the “greater” good of all countries. United we stand, divided we fall was the core of the United States forming. Playing big brother Germany, selectively employing measures for less economically stable nations, simply ensures there is a debilitating hike in mental health issues in a country which, regardless of its willpower to rise from the ashes, keeps being torched alive by its “well-meaning” neighbours. Perhaps Markel may not think that austerity, the “evil,” word, has any evil to it. Balancing the budget, however has come at the price of increasingly playing with fire, at the cost of making human lives expendable.

If you would like to read more about Stuckler’s studies of how austerity is taking its toll on folks in Europe and America, click here.

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10 thoughts on “Austerity Measures, Financial Crises, and Mental Health: The Penultimate Greek Tragedy

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