Greece’s Drug Addicts Face Struggles During Crisis

Counseling and therapy have helped (from left) Eli Pandi, Constantina Veli and Alexandra Marcouti recover from drug addiction, but they worry about cutbacks

Eli Pandi, 38, started using drugs when she was 14 to escape the pain of family issues. “There was a lot of pain and misery,” she told the website SETimes. But through an Athens drug rehabilitation centre called Over 18, Pandi’s life was turned around by counseling and therapy programs. “I lost 24 years of my life,” she said, to drugs and alcohol, surviving on the kind of odd jobs that are the litany of an addict’s life — stealing and prostitution to get the money to feed their habit.

In crisis-torn Greece, where workers’ pay has been cut, taxes raised, pensions slashed, the minimum wage reduced to poverty level, there is little sympathy for people like Pandi. “People are very seriously prejudiced (toward addicts,)” Ioanna Rakla, 37, a clinical psychologist at Over 18, in Athens, which treats a range of disorders, told SETimes.

However, whether the facility will survive another 11 billion euros in cutbacks that the new coalition government has been ordered to make by the EU-IMF-ECB Troika in return for a second bailout of 130 billion euros, is in question. The crisis has already cut deeply into state-subsidized programs for drug addicts, a report by the country’s largest rehabilitation network, the Therapy Centre for Dependent Individuals stated. The report said life will get worse for many addicts, and projected that growing poverty will drive more people to drugs and alcohol and to the streets if centres aren’t available to help them.

Over 18 President Gerasimos Notaras said the centre is “close to being unable to function,” and accused the government of “destructive policies ridden with contradictions.” Notaras said subsidies were cut by 21 percent between 2009, when it received 24 million euros. Last year, under the pressure of additional cuts, 31 workers were let go.

The eight counselors at Over 18 have taken deep pay cuts. Rakla’s salary has gone from 1,040 euros to 700 a month. She said it’s been hard to make a living, but she persists. “I believe in this,” she told SETimes. With cuts up to 50 percent in some drug programmes, many addicts are returning to their old haunts and habits, but Rakla said more are coming to one of the 32 centres in Athens like hers, seeking help before their lives are gone for good.

“If Over 18 closes, what will become of us?” Constantina Veli, 32, told SETimes. She said she started using heroin at 18 as well as drinking heavily but came to the centre because, “I felt I couldn’t live with myself anymore … I wanted to have dreams and set targets,” adding that it was counseling and therapy that saved her.

Rakla though said she fears that programs such as Over 18, that don’t use drug substitutes such as methadone, will lose a lobbying war between centres to keep government funding. Over 18 is subsidized by a major psychiatric hospital that she said has had its budget cut nearly in half. “It’s a constant struggle,” she said. “Some of these people will return to drugs, and fatally so,” she said.

The center helped George Mihalopoulos, 40, to go from being an addict to a worker there after getting a degree in dietary nutrition. He said he thought his life was over before he came there. “My life was just me and my drugs.” he said. “(The counselors) have a real approach, they see each person who’s asking for help as an individual, and all of us as one.” He said he’s worried because “the government wants to let a lot of workers go.” Athens Mayor George Kaminis, who is readying a 10-year plan to renovate parts of the city, said one of his priorities is an induction center for addicts to provide support before admittance to rehabilitation facilities.

This article was reprinted by permission of Southeast European Times (