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Shrinking an economy is depressing business for Greek psychiatrists

By A. Craig Copetas
EuropePublished Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

There’s no deficit of black bile inside the psychiatric office of Dr. Konstantinos Kanellakis in Athens. With ever increasing numbers of Greece’s 11 million citizens frightened, despondent and bankrupt from five years of financial turmoil, Kanellakis says the disease Hippocrates called μελαγχολία (black bile) and modern physicians identify as clinical depression has reached epidemic proportions, releasing a further contagion on the country’s economic recovery.

“Europe’s bankers and politicians don’t seem to realize the dangerous depth of this collective psychological despair,” Kanellakis says. “They’re in extreme denial. The economy is now the main reason why people visit psychiatrists.”

Greek psychiatrist Konstantinos Kanellakis

Kanellakis’s psychoeconomic diagnosis is exact: the demolition of the human spirit is an enormous setback to achieving fiscal stability. His prognosis is melancholic: the national labor required to pay back some €360 billion ($463 billion) of debt, a figure that is still ballooning, long ago exceeded Herculean proportions.

Indeed, Greece now registers the fastest growing suicide rate in the European Union. According to the government’s most recent statistics, suicides rose from 328 in 2007 to 391 in 2009, a 20% increase.

“People are living in anticipation of great catastrophe,” the 50-year-old psychiatrist explains. “It’s reached the point where the anticipation of catastrophe continues to grow worse than the catastrophe to come. Unless we hit bottom, this will continue.”

The 17th century German mathematician and economist Gottfried Leibniz calculated that the human spirit is the mirror of an indestructible universe. Leibniz also dabbled in physics and, if his principle is correct, Greece today exists as a decaying alternate universe, where the speed of debt exceeds 2,000 euros a second and isolating Prozac is an exercise in quantum mechanics.

Greece’s state-administered healthcare system operates only 10 pharmacies that dispense pre-paid mood stabilizers and other medications. The country’s approximately 9,000 privately owned pharmacies demand cash that customers can recoup from the government insurance fund. Neither scheme works.

The reason, of course, is money. There is none. According to the Pharmacies’ Association in Athens, major drug makers are no longer keen to trade with Greece because of the escalating monetary crisis and fears the place will devolve into an economy of hyperinflated drachmas. The whereabouts of stockpiled anti-depressants are mostly a mystery and independent pharmacists gripe that the government currently owes them some €540 million. Thousands of physicians who work for the state’s National Organization for Healthcare Provision (EOPYY) say the government over the past three years has failed to pay them a total of €1.71 billion in outstanding salaries.

“It makes it difficult for the government to provide people with medication,” Kanellakis says.

Although there are enough Greek financial crisis forecasters to fill a new edition of The Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology, Peter Shelby at the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations says he’s yet to find a reliable industry oracle who can gauge the volume of anti-depressants presently sold in Greece. “France, Germany, I can help you,” says Shelby, IFPMA‘s man in Geneva. “In Greece, nobody seems to know.”

Kanellakis estimates that the use of anti-depressants has at least tripled, shredding the most recent 2009 OECD report that ranks Greece’s suicide rate and anti-depressant consumption among the lowest in Europe. “This is an enormous, phenomenal increase,” he says.

The struggle for treatment, Kanellakis says, is frantic, occasionally maybe even heroic and increasingly medicated. “I have patients who can’t afford milk for their children spending 10 to 15 euros a month on pills,” he laments.

Sigmund Freud said the aim of psychoanalysis is to relieve people of their neurotic unhappiness so that they can be normally unhappy. “That’s not the case in Greece,” Kanellakis says. “My patients are actually right to feel what they feel. I can’t tell them that they’re not rational. They are rational and I’m happy to have work.”

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