COMMENT

A war against addiction and despair

By Nikos Konstandaras

Our country is at war. Most don’t realize it, because some people wage battle every day and night to save lives, to treat and rehabilitate people and keep disaster at bay. In the crisis, it has become even more urgent to support society’s weaker members – the addicted, the homeless, the desperate. The front has held. But even as it needs to be reinforced, it is threatened by severe cuts in government funding.

The worst effects of the crisis are not evident, because municipalities, the Church, charitable foundations, volunteers and employees of various agencies (state or nongovernmental) are doing all they can to alleviate problems. The Church provides food for 62,000 people daily and the City of Athens for 1,400. Volunteer doctors treat thousands of patients annually, while citizens donate food and medicine. Family members, friends and neighbors help each other.

In the specialized field of addiction, the state is making serious efforts to deal with the problem. The national coordinator for dealing with narcotics, Dr Christina Papoutsopoulou-Diamantopoulou, has drawn up a National Action Plan for 2014-16 and the text will be finalized after comments are submitted by civil society groups. The plan notes that in Greece “the annual cost of addiction exceeds 1.2 billion euros, which corresponds to 0.7 percent of GDP, without taking into account the cost from lost productivity, from the high mortality rate among young citizens and from the indirect cost to public health.” The UN’s International Narcotics Control Board stressed in its 2013 report that governments must ensure sufficient and stable funding for prevention programs, therapy and rehabilitation, even in times of austerity, noting that for every dollar spent on such programs, 10 dollars are saved.

And yet, suddenly the Health Ministry proposed significant cuts to the funds of the Therapy Center for Dependent Individuals (KETHEA), the Organization Against Drugs (OKANA) and other agencies which must apply the Action Plan and which are already at their limits. KETHEA, which runs more than 100 therapy units in 23 cities and 18 prisons, provides support for 13,500 people (addicts and family members) on an annual basis. In 54 therapy units, OKANA is treating 8,500 people. Appeals for therapy are increasing, with many towns asking KETHEA to set up new units to deal with addictions to narcotics, gambling, the Internet and alcohol and to provide psychological support. (Disclosure: I am a member of KETHEA’s board.)

State funds for KETHEA have been cut by 25 percent since the start of the crisis and 80 employees have been let go. But now the Health Ministry is cutting 2015’s budget from 18.5 million euros to 16 million. This will affect the center’s operations. Therapists who had been performing miracles will not be able to keep up. A great battle may be lost when, with a little more effort, it could be won. Who would be prepared to take the blame for this?

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