| ATHENS, April 28
ATHENS, April 28 On Monday, a 38-year-old
geology lecturer hanged himself from a lamp post in Athens and
on the same day a 35-year-old priest jumped to his death off his
balcony in northern Greece. On Wednesday, a 23-year-old student
shot himself in the head.
In a country that has had one of the lowest suicide rates in
the world, a surge in the number of suicides in the wake of an
economic crisis has shocked and gripped the Mediterranean nation
- and its media - before a May 6 election.
The especially grisly death of pharmacist Dimitris
Christoulas, who shot himself in the head on a central Athens
square because of poverty brought on by the crisis that has put
millions out of work, was by far the most dramatic.
Before shooting himself during morning rush hour on April 4
on Syntagma Square across from the Greek parliament building,
the 77-year-old pensioner took a moment to jot down a note.
"I see no other solution than this dignified end to my life
so I don't find myself fishing through garbage cans for
sustenance," wrote Christoulas, who has since become a national
symbol of the austerity-induced pain that is squeezing millions.
Greek media have since reported similar suicides almost
daily, worsening a sense of gloom going into next week's
election, called after Prime Minister Lucas Papademos's interim
government completed its mandate to secure a new rescue deal
from foreign creditors by cutting spending further.
Some medical experts say this form of political suicide is a
reflection of the growing despair and sense of helplessness many
feel. But others warn the media may be amplifying the crisis
mood with its coverage and numbers may only be up slightly.
"The crisis has triggered a growing sense of guilt, a loss
of self-esteem and humiliation for many Greeks," Nikos Sideris,
a leading psychoanalyst and author in Athens, told Reuters.
"Greek people don't want to be a burden to anyone and
there's this growing sense of helplessness. Some develop an
attitude of self-hatred and that leads to self-destruction.
That's what's behind the increase in suicide and attempted
suicide. We're seeing a whole new category: political suicides."
Police said the geology lecturer, Nikos Polyvos, who hanged
himself, was distraught because a teaching job offer had been
blocked due to a blanket hiring freeze in the public sector.
NATION IN SHOCK
Experts say the numbers are relatively low - less than about
600 per year. But increases in suicides, attempted suicides, the
use of anti-depressant medication and the need for psychiatric
care are causing alarm in a nation unaccustomed to the problems.
Before the financial crisis began wreaking havoc in 2009,
Greece had one of the lowest suicide rates in the world - 2.8
per 100,000 inhabitants. There was a 40 percent rise in suicides
in the first half of 2010, according to the Health Ministry.
There are no reliable statistics on 2011 but experts say
Greece's suicide rate has probably doubled to about 5 per
100,000. That is still far below levels of 34 per 100,000 seen
in Finland or 9 per 100,000 in Germany. Attempted suicides and
demand for psychiatric help has risen as Greece struggles to
cope with the worst economic crisis since World War Two.
Nikiforos Angelopoulos, a professor of psychiatry, has a
busy psychotherapy practice in an upmarket Athens neighbourhood.
He said the crisis has exacerbated the problems for some already
less stable people and estimates that about five percent of his
patients have developed problems due to the crisis.
"We're a nation in shock," he said, even though he suspected
that it was the media coverage of suicides that had increased
dramatically rather than the actual numbers of suicides. He
nevertheless says the crisis is behind a notable rise in mental
health problems in Greece.
"I had one patient who came in with a severe depression - he
owns a furniture making company that got into financial trouble
and he had to lay off 20 of his 100 workers," he said. "He
couldn't sleep and couldn't eat because of that. He said his
good business was being ruined and he couldn't cope anymore."
The furniture maker spent four months in therapy and was
also helped by anti-depressants, Angelopoulos said.
"He's better now. He realised what happened just happened.
But there are many others who are unstable or psychotic to begin
with and the crisis is increasing their anxiety and insecurity."
Angelopoulos, 60, has also suffered himself because about 20
percent of his patients can no longer afford his 100 euro ($130)
per hour sessions. Some have asked for a half-price discount
while others tell him they simply can't afford to pay anything.
"I never turn people away," he said. "If a patient says to
me 'I have no money', I couldn't tell them to go away. I tell
them okay you don't have to pay now but remember me later."
There are several possible explanations for Greece's low
suicide rate that go beyond the fact that the country has an
abundance of sunshine and balmy weather.
To avoid stigmatising their families, some suicidal Greeks
deliberately crash their cars, which police often charitably
report as accidents. Families often try to cover up a suicide so
their loved ones can be buried because the Greek Orthodox church
refuses to officiate at burials of people who commit suicide.
Another important factor behind the low suicide rate is that
Greeks have extremely close knit families as well as a highly
communicative and expressive culture.
"Greece is a country where everyone will talk to you," said
Sideris, the Athens psychoanalyst. "You'll always find someone
to share your suffering with and someone's always there to help.
"It's not only the good weather. It's the powerful network
of support that has made the suicide rate in Greece so low. It's
still there but this crisis is still too much for some people."
Many Greeks have also not lost their sense of humour.
Dimitris Nikolopoulos, a 37-year-old salesman, laughed at
the idea that the suicide rate was so low because Greeks are
well-adjusted and a generally happy people.
"Greeks used to be very happy people because we were living
off money that didn't belong to us," he said with a wry smile.
"But sometimes you have to face reality. It wasn't our money."