Saturday, December 05, 2015


It is not often that one gets to behold their idols in the flesh. Greek journalist and media personality Rika Vagianni entered my pantheon when, at an early age, I saw her play the young neglected wife of a rembeti in the classic “To Minore tis Avgis.” The fire and tension she infused into her role was palpable. Years later I would be enthralled by the manner in which she could, in her popular current affairs program on ERT, plunge the entire show into chaos, via her frequent fits of laughter, providing a much needed human element to the telescreen. Her stint as a candidate with the “Potami” party in the recent elections left me bemused but ardent enough to welcome her arrival, along with her husband, Professor Nikos Stefanis, Professor of Psychiatry at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, at the University Melbourne, in order to launch two Greek-Australian Fellowships in Neuropsychiatry, by co-presenting a public lecture entitled: “The Psychological Impact of the Economic Crisis on the Greek Population.”
Professor Nikos Stefanis’ brief talk focused mainly on data between 2008 to 2013 that linked depression to suicide, tracking both how the suicide rate increased as the economic crisis worsened, but also how such rates defied general trends, with depression and suicide rates of males in the so-called productive years of 35-45, being on par with those of females. Alluding to the research undertaken to collate such statistics, Professor Stefanis mentioned that most of this is done without funding by the Greek state. In fact, a catastrophic collapse of infrastructure and services has seen a dramatic increase in cases of HIV/AIDS afflict Greece and even diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria, which one would have thought had been previously eradicated, are making a concerning return, while other mosquito-borne viruses, such as West Nile River Virus, are also making themselves manifest. Clearly then, there is a direct link between the economic crisis/collapse of the Greek state and the physical and mental well being of the Greek people.
Professor Stefanis’ insightful talk was valuable in that it gave rise to pertinent questions and future possible areas of research. In particular, it would be pertinent to discover whether one can trace the psychological impacts of previous crises afflicting the Greek nation upon its inhabitants, and tracing how this affected the development of Greek society. It may, for example, be of value to see if data exists about the suicide rates and other psychological problems faced by survivors of the Asia Minor catastrophe and genocide, or the German Occupation and Civil War, in which it is well known that suicide rates were high. Having obtained this information, it may then be of use to compare it with the data gleaned from the current crisis in order to see exactly which factors create psychological trauma in people and whether any parallels can be drawn.One does not of course need to deal only with suicide rates. General violence, fear, uncertainty and social dislocation all can create traumas that mutate the manner in which people relate to one another and chase the course of a society. Furthermore, psychological traumas or at least their effects can be passed on, or inherited.
Professor Stefanis, who has a close relationship with Australia having taught in Perth in recent years could also provide the inspiration for a study closer to home: researching the psychological impact of previous Greek crises upon Greek migrants in Australia and tracing how their reaction to such crises shaped or warped the development of the Greek community therein. Behaviour patterns such as aggression, paranoia, excessive rudeness, could all thus be traced to specific traumas and their after-effects analyzed, for there exist in Melbourne, at least, many psychologically damaged elderly people. I have come across not a few of them who enjoy torturing animals, an unhappy mode of behaviour that appears to derive from harrowing childhood experiences involving seeing their relatives kill others during the Greek Civil War. Even such seemingly innocuous modes of behaviour such as excessive parsimony can be linked to the austerity of the Occupation era and interesting parallels or juxtapositions could be drawn with corresponding behavioural patterns arising out of the current economic crisis.
Rika Vagianni on the other hand commenced her talk about the social aspects of the Greek economic crisis by citing Greek composer Manos Hatzidakis’ famous allusion to the “bank in the sky” where he stored the deposits that he felt, made him rich: his artistic journey. According to Rika, the Greek people also have a bank in the sky, that is their civilization. To prove this point, Rika attempted to contrast the fees payable for the rights to put on a show such as ‘Mammia Mia’ ($200,000 apparently) with those payable by those who put on a Sophoclean tragedy (nil). While the parallel was not particularly instructive, especially since Sophoclean tragedies are over two millennia old and Shakespeare too, is free, she went on to suggest that while others put a price tag in various inventions or phenomena, such ‘Greek’ developments as democracy or the Olympic flame are not withheld for profit but rather, are freely bestowed upon the world by Greece, even though the Olympic flame has no Greek precedent, having been introduced at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, while the torch relay also has no ancient precedent, being introduced by Carl Diem at the Nazi 1936 Olympics in Berlin. 
The aforementioned notwithstanding, Rika made an important point, that is, that in times of crisis, symbols can become important and people rally around them. Recent migrants from Greece for example, relate that while living Greece, they felt that such things as Independence Day marches, flying the Greek flag or attending religious ceremonies seemed to them to be kitsch but have now taken on a special significance for them as a link to an identity. An exposition of those symbols deposited in the vaults of Greece’s “bank in the sky,” that are deemed to be of importance to those enduring the current crisis and how these are used, would have been fascinating but unfortunately Rika did not appear to provide insights in this regard. Instead, she provided case studies of Greeks who, despite the crisis have managed to make a success of themselves: a fashion designer, a taxi app designer, and the executive of an NGO that is so efficient in assisting refugees that it has been able to donate its surplus funds and provisions to other welfare organsiations. According to Rika, any multinational company should be privileged to have them. The purpose behind citing these examples appears to be unclear, unless Rika intended achieving success according to the market values of the haute bourgeoisie to be valuable interest bearing deposits in her celestial bank. Even if such examples are to be held up as symbols of future hope for success in the form of material happiness, to a downtrodden and frustrated general populace with a 25% unemployment rate, it is easily foreseeable that they can easily also become symbols of alienation and frustration, especially given that felicity eerily seems to lie in espousing forms of western capitalism. A quick perusal of Professor Vrasidas Karalis’ recently published book “Demons of Athens” is indicative of how pervasive despondency is and how seemingly irredeemable, the psychologically damaged of Greece appear to be.
While presenting her audience with a Pandora’s Box of symbolic deposits, Pandora like, the effervescent Rika left hope for last, emphasizing the importance of giving dreams wings so that they may soar. At this point, it would have been instructive for Rika to have pointed out incidents of altruism, which, if extrapolated and celebrated, could lead to increased social cohesion, such as the many Greeks who are involved in charitable works such as organizing soup kitchens or who are visiting the lonely and the isolated. Further than this, it would have been of assistance if she could have mentioned, from her point of view as a journalist, which, if any role, the Greek media could play in exercising the necessary critiques of the Greek political sphere to ensure much needed reform that will permit citizens to play a more organic role in the society in which they life, liberated from the all pervasive current structure of the client supplicating the patron for favour.
Bizarrely, in my view, Rika then interposed within her talk, the following extract from a poem by Nobel Prize winning poet Odysseas Elytis, (she made much of Greece's two Nobel Prize winners, Elytis and Seferis, though it is important to note by way of parallel, that of the fifteen Australian Nobel laureates, two have been awarded this honour for services to literature): "Whenever evil finds you, whenever your mind is clouded, remember Solomos and Alexandros Papdiamandis." Stirring stuff but arguably of small consolation to a victim of child abuse (an increasing problem in a disintegrating community, the psychological effects of which did not rate a mention in both speakers' talks), domestic violence (again ignored), or the evicted (ignored). Perhaps there was an ulterior motive here: to exemplify the grand disconnect between the rhetorical flourishes that so characterize what purports to be modern Greek discourse and bitter reality. Ultimately, the problem with the "bank in the sky" analogy appears to be, that our account within it, appears to have been grossly overdrawn and now, the world is foreclosing upon the myths that have sustained it for so many years.
Professor Stefanis’ and Rika Vagianni’s insights into the psychological impact of the Greek crisis are nonetheless deeply felt and thought-provoking. Their presence here, marking the commencement of a partnership between Greece and Australia in the field of Neuropsychiatry is deeply exciting. It is hoped that it proves the catalyst for a deep scientific analysis of the traumas that have shaped our own understanding of who we are and how we relate to one another.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 5 December 2015