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A lifeline for addicts at a time of crisis

According to data provided by KETHEA, six out of 10 homeless addicts face serious health problems and are more vulnerable to diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C.

By Alexandra Giannidi

Six years into a deep recession that has seen Greece slash its healthcare budget and society come under great pressure, those working at KETHEA, one of the country's biggest drug therapy networks, are being forced to deal with the fallout.

The devastating mix of cuts in state funding and a severe deterioration in the living standards of addicts has left them with plenty of work to do.

“KETHEA's work has increased during the crisis. The organization's responsibilities are bigger,” says KETHEA director Vassilis Gitakos.

KETHEA, the acronym for the Greek Therapy Center for Dependent Individuals, was founded in 1983 and supports about 13,500 people (addicts and families) per year free of charge. It has more than 100 units around the country, including night units for those who work during the day, as well as units for teenagers and for prisoners.

Although Greece's financial crisis has been blamed for an increase in the number of drug addicts between 2009 and 2010, since 2011 their number has returned to pre-crisis levels, between 20,000 and 23,000 people, according to the Greek Documentation and Monitoring Center for Drugs (EKTEPN).

However, the crisis has had a serious effect on the lives of drug users as well as KETHEA's work load.

According to Gitakos, addicts are the least capable of dealing with the effects of the crisis, such as pay cuts and high unemployment, which is currently hovering around 27 percent.

He adds that homelessness among addicts has soared. Gitakos further notes that more addicts don't get enough food, more families are being destroyed as a result of addiction, while psychological problems and suicide attempts have increased and more are turning to crime.

According to data provided by KETHEA, six out of 10 homeless addicts face serious health problems and are more vulnerable to diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C. The number of HIV patients increased by 1,500 percent in the 2010-11 period.

“Requests for support have increased drastically both from individuals and local authorities,” says Gitakos, adding that a number of municipalities, including those of Chios, Kalymnos and Igoumenitsa have asked for help.

Funding cuts

In addition, KETHEA's state funding has been slashed by nearly 30 percent since the start of the crisis. KETHEA has responded by reducing its own spending. The organization's work force has been cut by almost 15 percent while salaries have dropped between 30 and 60 percent.

“The salaries of KETHEA employees have gone down, while their responsibilities have increased,” says Gitakos. “As a result they have become tired. It is a very serious problem.”

However, the organization claims that reducing state spending on KETHEA has hidden costs. According to the organization's own research, for every euro the government gives to KETHEA, it saves 4.60-6.50 euros in terms of health care, policing and lost productivity costs.

KETHEA operates a “dry” program, meaning it aims at achieving total cure from addiction without the use of substitute drugs. It takes care of users from the point they enter the program until they are capable of looking after themselves and others around them. It also offers training and education, aimed at helping individuals to find a job and reintegrate into society after their rehabilitation.

The results are encouraging. According to data provided by the organization, of the addicts who began therapy in 1994-95, five years later (or more) approximately 68 percent were clean, 73 percent had committed no illegal activity, and 84 percent were employed.

Fresh challenges

Experts however admit that the financial crisis and its devastating impact on the Greek labor market have eliminated a key incentive for addicts wishing to get clean. Although addicts are happy to receive comfort and help that will make their lives more bearable, Gitakos says, they are less keen to enter a rehabilitation program.

“Why would an addict be motivated to go into therapy today? Even if he managed to break his addiction, it would be unlikely that he could find a job,” he says.

To address the problem, KETHEA has started to concentrate on reducing the possibility of relapse and also helping addicts in ways other than therapy. The organization is now focusing on improving conditions for homeless addicts.

The Center for Immediate Help in Athens was set up in Koumoundourou Square, in central Athens, in June 2013, with facilities that offer addicts free professional help from doctors, dentists and lawyers. They also provide free food and clothing, as well as places where addicts can take a shower and wash their clothes, and give them the option to take part in organized leisure activities. In addition, medical experts visit locations where addicts gather in Athens and Thessaloniki to offer help, as part of a street unit named “Street Work” which is funded by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.

KETHEA has also launched a joint effort with five other organizations to create the “Entrepreneurship” program. The initiative aims to equip rehabilitated individuals with the necessary skills and guidance to enter the job market and minimize the chances of relapse. The program not only provides the participants with useful training, but it also helps them start their own business.

In 2013, in a first for Greece, KETHEA created seven new therapeutic communities that specialize in the treatment of individuals suffering from addiction as well as severe psychological problems, financed by the EU's National Strategic Reference Framework.

In the near future, KETHA plans to focus on expanding therapy for alcoholism and creating more programs for therapy in Greece's prisons. The organization also aims to strengthen efforts for the prevention of drug use through educational programs for children growing up in “high-risk environments,” according to Gitakos.

“We will continue to do the best that we can.”

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