A Greek perspective on austerity psychology

Keith Frankish and Maria Kasmirli

Graffiti image of person holding 'Hopeless' sign

As a philosopher of cognitive science, I take a strong interest in work in psychology and have many friends working in the field. Living in Greece, I have been sharply aware of the pressures the current crisis is placing on psychologists, both academics and clinicians, and I recently co-authored a short piece on the topic, collaborating with my partner Maria Kasmilri, who is also a philosopher. The article was a contribution to a feature on austerity in The Psychologist magazine, and I republish it here with the kind permission of the editor.

‘I have the feeling that we are in a war period’

Over the past few years no country in Europe has experienced more extreme austerity than Greece. With unsustainably high levels of national debt, the country has been forced to rely on loans from the ‘troika’ of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. These lenders required the government to implement austerity measures to reduce the deficit, and the consequent tax rises and spending cuts have sent the economy into a deep recession, now in its sixth year. Unemployment has risen to 27.4 per cent (60 per cent among young people); hundreds of thousands of businesses have closed, and there has been widespread social unrest. This has been a harsh climate for Greek psychologists, both academics and clinicians.1

Psychology has only recently established itself as an independent academic discipline in Greece (the first department was established in 1987), and psychology departments are small and vulnerable. For the last three years, no new staff have been recruited, retiring staff have not been replaced, and even formally appointed staff have not been allowed to assume their posts. Meanwhile the Ministry of Education has admitted more students (undergraduate admissions are centrally controlled), reduced completion times, and increased the number of exam periods (turning universities into ‘mass processing exam centres’ as one academic puts it). With budget cuts, departmental mergers and closures, and competition from the private sector, many academics feel stressed and dispirited. Some talk of the ‘slow death’ of small departments, such as those of psychology, and many younger academics have left to seek posts overseas.

Research has also been hit. University research budgets have been cut and can support only small projects, and outside funding is scarce (there are European Union grants, but competition for them is fierce). Even basic support is lacking; researchers often have to self-fund attendance at conferences, and institutional subscriptions to online academic journals have lapsed. As salaries have been slashed and payments delayed, this raises the prospect that only those with independent means will be able to remain active researchers.

Psychologists working in applied settings (hospitals, clinics, community mental health centres, and educational environments) have faced heavier demands and tougher working conditions. The crisis has brought a huge rise in depression, suicidality, anxiety disorders, drug abuse, domestic violence, social exclusion, and other mental health issues, and the services of medical psychologists are needed more than ever, especially in the public sector, to which patients have increasingly turned. Yet public provision has shrunk. Many institutions have been closed, had funding withdrawn or staff cut. This has created long waiting lists at the remaining institutions and left many vulnerable patients with nowhere to go: one practitioner told us that in many cases child victims of domestic abuse have to be kept in hospital. Meanwhile, fewer staff (from a small base) have increased workloads, while suffering exhaustion and insecurity themselves. ‘Sometimes, I have the feeling that we are in a war period,’ says Corina Hatzinikolaou, a developmental psychologist at the Institute of Child Health in Athens. ‘In many public health structures, psychologists have to act quickly and attend to as many people as they can, not necessarily providing the best service, but attending to the most urgent needs.’ There is a similarly bleak picture in the private sector, where psychologists have seen their practices shrink, while having to treat patients with more serious problems.

Yet, despite the huge stresses they are under, psychologists have responded positively to the situation. Many professionals volunteer their services, working with humanitarian organisations and churches to provide counselling and therapy services to the poor, immigrants, homeless, and addicts; and many self-employed practitioners work with public organisations for reduced fees or none at all. Many young unemployed psychologists are involved in voluntary work – selflessly, since such activities are not considered part of their practice.

Academics have also recognised the importance of addressing the new situation. Sofia Triliva of the University of Crete talks of an ‘ethical imperative’ to study the impact of the economic crisis on people’s lives, and has herself focused on the effects on young people and on the rise of racism, ethnocentrism and fascism, especially in schools. Maria Platsidou of the University of Macedonia notes that positive psychology is now appreciated more than ever, and that there is increased interest in topics such as subjective well-being, resilience and practical ways of helping people cope. More generally, the erosion of social structures has vividly illustrated the social dimension of psychological well-being. As Triliva puts it, ‘The bases of the person’s insecurities and problems are social, economic, and political, so how can s/he confront these problems as a disconnected individual or entity?’

Have there been any positive aspects to the crisis? It is hard to find any, but some of those we talked to pointed to an increase sense of solidarity and social responsibility, and to the challenges of developing new research partnerships and working together for social change. Perhaps we can mention also the opportunities for developing international collaborations. For one thing is certain: anyone interested in the effects of austerity, on individuals, society and the profession of psychology itself, can learn much from their colleagues in Greece.

1. It is not easy to find hard figures on the numbers of businesses that have closed since the crisis started, but it is probably correct to say that it is more than 200,000. (110,000 businesses are reported to have closed in 2011 alone.) For more details, see the following press reports: ‘Shopkeepers shutter shops as crisis bites’, ‘Dramatic drop in budget revenues’, and ‘Greek Small Businesses Face Further Gloom, Fear 55,000 Closures in 2013’.

Maria Kasmirli and Keith Frankish are philosophers with strong research interests in psychology. Maria is a PhD student in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield. Keith is a Senior Visiting Research Fellow in the Department of Philosophy at the Open University and an Adjunct Professor with the Brain and Mind Programme at the University of Crete. The authors wish to thank all those who have advised them on this article, mentioning in particular Corina Hatzinikolaou, Irini Kranias, Giannis Kugiumutzakis, Maria Platsidou, Zaira Papaligoura, Lili Roussou and Sofia Triliva.

Image credit: ‘hopeless’ by aesthetics of crisis

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