When I met Marilena Simiti to find out about her work researching social movements, protests and riots, the words she used often to describe people’s state of mind in Greece were ‘anxiety’, ‘resignation’ and ‘depression’. Marilena is assistant professor in the Department of International and European Studies at the University of Piraeus in Athens and I got in touch with her as I wanted to talk to her about new political spaces that are opening up in the country
We met in Filion on Skoufa Street in Kolonaki – I’d read that it was a cosy, laid-back place popular with actors and writers, and some of the older men wearing berets, smoking and talking over their espressos seemed to fit the bill.
Marilena, who has written about the Greek Indignant movement used the words ‘depression’ and ‘resignation’ to describe her response – and that of others – in the wake of the Greek Square Movement, which included the occupation of Athen’s Syntagma Square. The continued implementation of austerity measures despite the protests had contributed significantly to these feelings, said Marilena, adding that while some were more optimistic than others about what Syriza could achieve if it was elected, this January’s elections meant that things were on hold, as people were waiting to see if they got in. Now that the party was in power, there was widespread anxiety about the Alexis Tsipras-led government’s ability to succeed. If they failed, what then? People are also afraid that one outcome could be the strengthening of Golden Dawn and a further move to the right.
Marilena spoke about initiatives around the country that have been set up to provide social services, food, health care, computer and internet training, education, as well as theatre and cinema projects and experiments in local democracy. These initiatives focus on the local level, reflecting a widespread lack of trust in central government and pessimism that change can be effected at that level. While these local networks are doing effective work, Marilena said there is a lack of connection with other groups and disagreements between many them.
Meanwhile, Golden Dawn has also dug in deep in Greek communities, building strong networks, especially in the countryside, where they have been providing services, food and even psychological support. This provision suggests that the neo-Nazi party has grasped the importance of an issue that Mark Fisher urges the Left to address in his book Capitalist Realism.
Fisher argues that “the ‘invisible plague’ of psychiatric and affective disorders that has spread, silently and stealthily, since around 1750 (ie the very onset of industrial capitalism) has reached a new level of acuteness” with post-Fordism. Fisher refers to Oliver James’ work in the Selfish Capitalist, which suggests that mental illness is on the rise because of the culture and policies of capitalism – in 2000, 29 percent of 30-year-old women reported having ‘trouble with nerves, feeling low, depressed, or sad’ compared to 16 per cent of 36-year-old women in 1982. The numbers for men were 13 per cent in 2000, and eight per cent in 1982.
While these figures need more analysis, it suggests that women’s experiences should be explored as part of the process Fisher describes as “a genuinely revitalized left confidently occupy[ing] the new political terrain”.
The cost of austerity is undoubtedly being borne by ordinary people in Greece, where state funding for mental health decreased by 20 per cent between 2010 and 2011, and by a further 55 per cent between 2011 and 2012. Many of the public and non-profit mental health service providers having scaled back their operations, shut down, or reduced staff. Incidents of major depression increased by five per cent between 2011, when it stood at 8.2 percent with economic hardship being a major cause. The number of suicides increased by 45 per cent between 2007 and 2011, albeit from a low initial amount. This increase was initially most pronounced for men, but 2011 data from the Hellenic Statistical Authority also suggests there has been a rise among women.
If austerity, and more broadly, capitalism aren’t good for mental health, this suggests that while community programmes offering psychological help are vital, needed, we must, as Fisher argues, “convert widespread mental health problems from medicalized conditions into effective antagonisms. Affective disorders are forms of captured discontent; this disaffection can and must be channeled outwards, directed against the real cause, Capital.”
Moving the focus from treating mental health solely as individual, atomized conditions and critiquing the society that is harming so many people seems a good move, but perhaps only the first step if we are to build an alternative. Women’s discontent with capitalism have to be instated in the debate, for one, but we will also need hope and inspiration to imagine a different future.