Athens, Greece • Hundreds of workers in mental health services staged a protest outside Greece’s finance ministry Friday, warning that staff and budget cuts will leave them unable to cope with an emerging mental health crisis caused by the threat of Greece’s financial collapse.
The government announced this week that 10 percent of staff at mental health agencies would likely be suspended on reduced pay, as part of major cost-cutting drive demanded by international rescue creditors as a condition for continued payments.
Greece will default unless it receives the next $10.8 billion emergency loan installment next month, and this week announced new cuts including the suspension of 30,000 people on the state payroll for a year.
On Friday, more that 500 people, chanting "You’ve sold out the health system, now sell your mothers" joined the peaceful anti-government march.
Menelaos Theodoroulakis, head of Greece’s mental health professionals association, told The Associated Press that funding for community-based mental health programs had been cut in half since the crisis started in late 2009.
"There is still funding for psychiatric hospitals, but funding for programs to deinstitutionalize psychiatric patients has dried up … If this continues, we’ll be obliged to move some people back into hospitals," he said.
"We provide care for 1,500 hospitalized patients and 35,000 people who need psychiatric assistance … Services will have to be cut if this situation continues."
The government is seeking steep cuts in health care spending this year — down from $9.41 billion to $7.53 billion, excluding state insurance subsidies — as it struggles to contain past spending excesses.
Although health care staff had been generally spared from previous rounds of staff cuts, tougher austerity measures announced this week will affect workers in mental health and drug rehab, currently staffed with 3,050 and some 1,200 employees respectively on the state payroll.
The two-year financial crisis, has pushed unemployment to more than 16 percent, and spurred an increase in social and mental health problems — with a visible increase in homelessness, street prostitution, and drug use in run-down parts of central Athens.
The operators of a state-funded national suicide-prevention helpline say they received 5,000 calls in the first eight months of 2011, compared with 2,500 calls for all of last year. One in four calls was related to the financial crisis, the operator said. Official data for suicides in 2010 has not yet been released.
Petros Triandos, who works for a state-assisted drug rehabilitation program, warned of a spike in drug use in Athens, following the start of the crisis.
"There has been a disturbing rise in the use of more dangerous drugs, in the last year or two. Crystal meth has begun appearing with greater frequently, and very low-quality heroin, that is more likely to cause fatalities," he said.
"Of course the need for our help will increase with the crisis. We’ve had a hiring freeze since 2006, and each staff member now copes with the responsibilities of two or three positions. At the moment, we can barely cope. But soon we won’t be able to."
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