On Iasonos Street in downtown Athens, a popular hangout for drug addicts, 27-year-old Michalis is looking for his dealer to buy his fix.
Like most of Athens’ drug users, he is constantly under pressure from police who, since last year, have tried to push drug users and sex workers out of the city centre. “Police and authorities treat us worse than animals,” Michalis claims.
“The police forcibly put people in their van,” adds 48-year-old Spiros, a fellow drug user. “Once we are in the van, they drive us some 20 kilometres out of Athens and leave us there. Sometimes they will just open the doors and kick us out onto the highway – just like a garbage bag.”
As Greece enters its sixth year of recession, the country’s social fabric is being torn by austerity measures that have contributed to a 40 percent decline in the average Greek income. Greece’s conservative-led government has cut spending and raised taxes in an attempt to lower its budget deficit. Now, 28 percent of the population is unemployed and some three million people – of a total population of 11 million – live below the poverty line.
Greece has been forced to reduce its healthcare expenditures to below six percent of its gross domestic product – compared with about nine percent on average across the world’s developed countries – and public health spending dropped by 25 percent between 2009 and 2012. The Greek health system has cracked under the pressure, leaving thousands of people without access to basic medical care.
A public health crisis?
The results are stark. Data from the Athens-based University Mental Health Research Institute indicate that major depression rates have increased by 50 percent since 2009, affecting more than 12 percent of the general population in 2013. Meanwhile, drug and alcohol abuse has risen dramatically. In 2011-12, Greece experienced a major outbreak in HIV infections among injecting drug users.
Slashing Greece’s social safety net has caused public health to deteriorate, say analysts, and young Greeks – of whom 60 percent are unemployed – lead the way. For instance, data from EPIPSI suggest that rates of drug use among teenagers have increased significantly in the last four years.
At first, economically vulnerable Greeks were able to rely on their families for protection. But with no end in sight to Greece’s economic woes, even this support network is weakening.
Vasilis Gkitakos, director of the Therapy Center for Dependent Individuals (KETHEA), one of Greece’s largest drug rehabilitation networks, said unemployment and drug use are the two major threats to the nation’s health. “As the hope for a better life and the motivation for treatment decreases but poverty rises, drug addicts increasingly tend to refrain from taking measures to protect their health and become more self-destructive,” says Gkitakos. “But the state fails to acknowledge, let alone to respond, to what is a public health disaster.”
Reaching those in need
Iordanis, a trained psychologist, has been doing street work in downtown Athens for the past 12 years. Together with Babis and Yorgos, both former drug users who now work as therapists for KETHEA, they walk the streets handing out free kits containing clean syringes, other drug preparation equipment and condoms. In one night, they often see up to 50 people with serious problems related to drug abuse.
For most of them, Iordanis and his team are their only links to a world outside of addiction. The number of young women seeking the services of their mobile unit has significantly increased since the crisis began. Many have become prostitutes – among the easiest ways to finance an addiction – often consenting to unprotected sex for just a few extra euros.
Tania M is one of them. The 26-year-old has prostituted herself to get money to buy drugs. So far, she has been sexually assaulted twice, resulting in a broken limb and the loss of four front teeth. Three months ago, Tania gave birth to a baby boy. She found out that she had contracted HIV when her newborn baby tested positive. The news of her baby’s health plunged Tania further into addiction.
According to data from the Hellenic Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, 86 children tested positive for HIV in 2012, compared with 37 in 2011.
Society tends to label drug addicts as cruel offenders… This just doesn’t work.
– Yannis Tentis, head of Kethea En Drasei
Escaping from addiction
But not all the news is bad for Greece’s drug users. In March 2013, Greece amended its drug laws, allowing milder penalties for users and a better framework for rehabilitation in prison.
When the entrance gate to the Eleonas Thivon women’s detention facility shuts, a claustrophobic feeling of uneasiness fills the air. Some 500 women, aged between 16 and 85, are detained here, including 19 toddlers who live with their imprisoned mothers. More than half the women have a history of drug abuse.
On the ground floor, a group called Kethea En Drasei offers rehabilitation to drug abusers in prison. Yannis Tentis, head of Kethea En Drasei, says jailing drug users offers society nothing but the feeling that lawbreakers are paying for their crimes.
“Once the person joins the community, feelings that were frozen by chronic drug abuse emerge. This is when users realise that they may have other options in life than drugs. In the community, members are taught to manage their feelings,” Tentis explains. “Society tends to label drug addicts as cruel offenders, and then incarcerates them in an environment where cruelty and delinquency is a daily routine. This just doesn’t work.”
Asma is a young troubled mother who participates in Kethea En Drasei. She was four months pregnant when convicted and her baby boy, today aged two, was born in prison. She suffers from panic attacks and epilepsy.
“In prison, you are on your own,” she says. “But when I come to the community, I find a family”.
(Photo Credit: Stylianos Papardelas)