Why the Greek crisis is a matter of life and death for some

Greece traditionally has had a low suicide rate, but over five years of austerity, the country has seen an increase in the number of people taking their own lives. And if the crisis gets worse, the number of suicides and other preventable deaths from lack of medical care or drugs is likely to rise. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports from Athens.

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    Now another look at Greece, this time how its strained economy is affecting its people.

    For the first four months of 2014, the budget for Greece's 132 hospitals was $735 million. This year, that number dropped to $50 million, a precipitous decline that has placed predictable stress on the nation's medical system. Now psychiatrists and other medical practitioners warn that deepening poverty will lead to an increase in suicides and preventable deaths.

    NewsHour special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports from Athens.


    It's a letter that no one should have to read. The suicide note left by 77-year-old pharmacist Dimitris Christoulas is now a treasured possession of his daughter, Emmy.

    EMMY CHRISTOULAS, Daughter of Suicide Victim (through interpretor): "If one Greek was to take up a Kalashnikov, I would be the second. But since I am too old to react actively and physically, I find no other solution than that of a dignified exit before I begin searching through the garbage for my food. I believe that, one day, because the younger generation have no future, they will take up arms and hang the traitors of the nation, just as the Italians did in 1945."


    Christoulas shot himself beneath this pine tree in Athens' Syntagma Square, where opponents urged Greek voters to reject the international austerity program in last weekend's referendum.

    One of the first on the scene was doorman Panos Kyriakopoulos

  • PANOS KYRIAKOPOULOS (through interpreter):

    Everyone who works around here was dreadfully upset, as well as those who were passing by. It was so unexpected, a man blowing out his brains in Syntagma Square. It was terrible, just terrible.


    It's been three years since the suicide, and Emmy Christoulas has come to terms with her father's motive. Dimitris wasn't depressed. He was a left-winger. And his death was a political act.

  • EMMY CHRISTOULAS (through interpreter):

    Look, at a personal level, the loss is always tremendous because here we are talking about a relationship which was exceptionally good, a very strong relationship throughout all the years of my life based on a really strong and rich emotional foundation.

    But, yes, the fact that my father decided to break the silence of our own social suicide, of our own society doesn't ease the pain but, it does make me proud.


    This is Greece's suicide hot line. Callers who are so depressed that they are considering killing themselves can be connected to an on-duty psychiatrist elsewhere in the country, who will attempt to convince them that life is worth living.

    Since the crisis, suicides have increased by roughly 50 percent. Recently, though, numbers went down. But Aris Violatzis, chief psychologist of the Klimaka Suicide Prevention organization, warns the upward trend could return.

  • ARIS VIOLATZIS, Chief Psychologist, Klimaka Suicide Prevention:

    If things will get worse, if Greece and its partners won't find a solution, if the other European countries, our partners won't help the situation to become better, then what — and we have more unemployment in the future, that is going to bring probably more suicides than we already have. Now, this is something that must be taken into account by the other European countries.


    The strain of austerity is everywhere. This taxi driver, who didn't wish to be identified, developed what his doctors say is a stress-related rash after he paid nearly $200,000 for his cab and operating license, and its value went down by two-thirds.

    The collapsing medical system, like the increase in suicides, are both symptoms of the impact of austerity on Greece.

  • DIONYSSIA MICHAELIDOU, Retiree (through interpreter):

    I have no insurance. I have no pension. I have nothing.


    Pensioner Dionyssia Michaelidou has come with her unemployed daughter, Depsina, to Athens' Elpis Hospital, where they know they can obtain vital medication for free.

    According to the director, the hospital is currently acting illegally, because it is serving people who don't have state medical coverage. At the start of the crisis, the hospital's annual budget was over $20 million. Now it's down to about $8 million.

    The director, Theo Giannaros, is on a mission to save lives.

  • THEO GIANNAROS, Director, Elpis Hospital:

    With this problem, the next months, even the insured people are going to have — aren't going to have the proper treatment. The new therapies, they are very expensive.

    So, like other countries in the Balkans, if they have a very strange disease, they are getting aspirins. But aspirins cannot save their lives. So, if we don't have any money, our treatments are going to be aspirins, or with red peppers, like in Africa, et cetera.


    Isidoros Tsagas is in remission from an aggressive thoracic cancer, only because he was able to receive free medication and treatment from Elpis Hospital.

  • ISIDOROS TSAGAS, Cancer Patient:

    This hospital saved my life. Otherwise, I was dead, except for a miracle, except for the God. We are a country, a member of European Union. So, all the political governments have to care about that and have the health in first priorities.


    European charities gave the hospital a mobile intensive care unit to treat patients who couldn't leave their homes, but Greek bureaucracy prevented the ambulance from being registered, and it has not been used for 18 months.

    As Greece teeters on the brink, drug supplies are running low. The pharmaceutical companies are owed more than $1 billion and haven't been paid since December. In the past, the companies have refused to supply drugs because of unpaid debts. But for the time being, they have promised to maintain the flow of medicine.


    What is happening here is a crime against humanity. And for these things, some Yugoslavs, for example, in the war of Yugoslavia went to the — they have been brought to the International Court for Human Rights for crimes against humanity because they killed some hundreds. Here, some thousands are going to die or died already.


    The impact of austerity on the medical system is just one of many reasons why Greeks voted to reject the European Union's latest bailout offer and its strict conditions. The victory of the no-campaign uplifted Emmy Christoulas.

  • EMMY CHRISTOULAS (through interpreter):

    A person who has lived to the age of 77 with a collective vision, and not the egocentric, egotistical and personal way of life, and has fought many battles in especially difficult times, because Greece has been through an exceptional number of trials and tribulations throughout history, who decides not to express this vision in an egotistical way, but by sacrificing his own life to relay the message of this collective vision, we can only consider his death as a non-selfish act, and probably the most humane act of his life.


    But, as Europe decides whether to cut off Greece's financial lifeline, a symbolic act beneath an old pine tree three years ago resonates louder than ever.

    For the PBS NewsHour, this is Malcolm Brabant in Athens.


    The precise numbers of suicides in Greece are very hard to determine, although an estimated 12,000 Greeks have their lives since the onset of economic austerity.

    Klimaka, the suicide prevention organization Malcolm visited in that report, attributes underreporting to cultural stigma and the difficulty in having a Christian funeral after a suicide in such an overwhelmingly orthodox nation.

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