By Lois Woestman, Guest Contributor
Dr. Lois Woestman, both a Greek and US citizen, currently works as EU-Liaison Officer at a German university. She previously worked as Lecturer and as EU-Liaison Officer for two universities in Greece, as well as a research/policy advice consultant (including for UNWOMEN, Europe-based WIDE+ Network, and global Association for Women in Development – AWID).
It is August 15th, 2015. The third Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in as many years was approved yesterday by the Greek parliament and the Eurogroup – the unelected European finance ministers organization to which most European political leaders have abdicated their power. In antithesis to the past six months, hardly anyone I have met in the last weeks in Athens or on the island Kythera is talking about it. What is going on? Though I am no psychologist, what I believe to have observed over the past three weeks is a generalized sense of burn-out induced depression.
People are simply exhausted. The constant hyper-tension since re-negotiations of the last MOU began in February under the Syriza government – following on five years of ever worsening economic depression – have taken their toll. My friends appear to have been put through old washing machine wringers. Their vivacity zapped, most people walk around like zombies, with intermittent outbursts of irritation.
People are also emotionally withdrawn. Unlike past reunions, which would go on for hours – all night – my friends manage about two hours, before they say something like: “Lois, I am really happy to see you. But, sorry. I need to lie down. I just don’t have any more energy to talk.” Some had to cancel jointly made vacation plans, explaining that the most they could manage emotionally was to get to their nuclear families, where they could collapse. No energy for vacation? Greeks? My friends?
Most people I have spoken with have little if any money for vacation, anyway. Mid-August is traditionally the busiest time of year for tourism in Greece. Athens empties out. Greeks I have spoken to who have the wherewithal for a holiday have had to pare it down to just a few days – a week at most. They can afford to eat out once a day, otherwise managing coffee etc. in their rooms.
Tourist business owners on Kythera explained that, in addition to very limited Greek tourism, foreign tourism has dropped radically. It was a fairly normal season in May and June. But as soon as the capital controls hit, foreign tourists practically ceased coming. One of the few remaining sources of income for Greeks has thus been drastically reduced this year.
In Athens, where most of its residents have remained, people travel to beaches reachable by public transport: “In this way, we can take a break by the sea, and pretend we have gone on vacation.”
Humiliation and hopelessness
After the rough treatment of PM Alexis Tsipras in the post-oxi negotiations with creditors, people I have spoken with feel humiliated. Moreover, they are convinced that it will only get worse, as there are no mechanisms in place for economic recovery anywhere down the line in their lifetimes. Most serious reviewers of the newest MOU agree. Is it any wonder, then, that people are disaffected, experiencing the finalization of the third memorandum as anti-climactic? An older gentleman told me: “Now that Tsipras had to cave in to more austerity and micro-management of our economy – who are they to tell us about the size of our bread, and force people to work on Sundays when even they do not? – to keep us in the Euro, what is the point of following debates any more? All hope and any chance of retaining a bit of personal and national pride is lost.”
This assessment of some of the burn out, aspects of the depression I see in Greece today are backed up by statistics, which show that depression as well as suicides rates have been on the rise in Greece since the Great Economic Depression began here. Suicide rates rose by 35% between 2010 and 2012; to my knowledge, no more recent figures have been released. Depression rates have risen from around 3% to 8% since the crisis began. Individuals are not accustomed to diagnosing or dealing with such phenomena, either in themselves nor in loved ones.
As one interviewee put it, “In the past, Greeks tended to yell, not let themselves go to hell.” Now, many people have passed the stage where they can yell. And even when they do – as in the overwhelming OXI vote to more austerity – it appears to have no positive effect on the outcome. It is indeed difficult to see what one could use as an argument to raise morale.
Nor is the medical system equipped to help. Even before the crisis, pyschotherapy was something only the well enough to do could afford, because it has not been covered by the health care system.
One commentator on the current economic moment in Greece used the phrase: “Well, to use a technical term, all hell is going to break loose.”A psychologist I spoke with used essentially the same phrase to talk about the portending psychological effects of it on others – and on himself.