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Poverty, health crisis among battles for Greece's Syriza

Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

Greece’s massive debt crisis has led to mounting poverty across the country and has left deep psychological scars that, despite the historic victory of the radical left Syriza party, will take a long time to heal.

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special correspondent in Athens, Greece.

Cold sweats, uncontrollable shaking and a racing heartbeat. The symptoms set in before Aris, a young unemployed Greek, is struck with a full-blown panic attack.

“During those moments, I feel like I'm about to die,” the 29-year-old construction worker says outside a free clinic in Helleniko, a suburb located south of Athens. His hands cup a bottle of expensive drugs, given to him at no charge, which are the only things that help him regain control.

Aris, 29, cannot afford the medication that helps him control his panic attacks, but can get them for free at a clinic in Helleniko, near Athens.
Aris, 29, cannot afford the medication that helps him control his panic attacks, but can get them for free at a clinic in Helleniko, near Athens.

Three days after the hard-left anti-austerity Syriza party won parliamentary elections, the Greek crisis has obviously not magically evaporated. Aris will continue trekking out to the austere building in Helleniko twice a month for the precious medication. He has no means to buy them at a regular pharmacy.

“I should be out on a construction site somewhere, but since the crisis there’s no more work. I scrape by playing guitar at a bar two times a week,” he says.

Thanks to the gigs Aris earns 120 euros per month. It’s not enough to pay for a healthcare insurance plan, and certainly not enough to move out of his parent’s house. His case is fairly common among young people in Greece. His younger sister also lives with the family, and earned 220 euros per month working part-time at a Starbucks coffee shop, but that was before debilitating depression set in.

Kick in the teeth

The sharp rise in mental health problems among the population does not surprise Vera Pavlou, a psychologist who follows Aris’s case in Helleniko. Like most healthcare professionals at the free clinic, including a band of dentists, cardiologists, gynecologists, pharmacists and others, Vera volunteers her time.

“About half of the patients I treat here displayed psychological problems before the crisis, and in most cases their problems are now worse,” Pavlou said. “The other half has developed problems, from depression to attempted suicide, precisely because they lost their jobs”.

Psychologist Vera Pavlou volunteers her time at the clinic in Helleniko. She says half her patients developed health problems after losing their jobs.
Psychologist Vera Pavlou volunteers her time at the clinic in Helleniko. She says half her patients developed health problems after losing their jobs.

Psychologists, like Pavlou, and dentists are the two medical professions most in demand at the free clinic. Psychological stress has reached worrying levels as a result of massive unemployment and cutbacks to social services, and expensive dental care is among the first things ditched by families experiencing financial difficulties.

“The trauma of the economic crisis is here to stay,” says Pavlou, adding that cases of diabetes, cancer and heart problems are also on the rise.

No return

Spiros, 55 years old and also out of a job, is one of the patients who comes to the clinic in Helleniko for heart medication. After his clothing shop went bankrupt in 2010, he has been unable to find an employer. Besides the weak heart he says he is consumed by anger toward Greece’s politicians.

Spiros, 55, and daughter Ella, come to the Helleniko clinic for his heart medication.
Spiros, 55, and daughter Ella, come to the Helleniko clinic for his heart medication.

“I voted Syriza on Sunday. It's my only hope and the last chance for our country,” he says. Aris says he also voted for Syriza, but is quick to add that he does not consider himself a part of the radical left movement. As for Pavlou the psychologist, she also cast her ballot for Syriza, but admits, “without much enthusiasm”.

Pavlou worries that the high hopes raised by Syriza’s victory at the polls could be setting the Greek people up for another psychological bombshell.

“We should not give in to the fantasy that things will return to the way they were before 2010: those illusions of wealth, spacious apartments, sports cars,” she warns. “Even if the economic situation improves within a year or two, people must understand that we are not going to back to our lives before the crisis.”

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