Greece’s long-term unemployed seek the tools to cope

Foteini Gagana has been waiting months for a call that may bring her a job. We are sitting in her apartment in the western Athenian neighborhood of Haidari when our conversation is interrupted by her phone ringing. Her face momentarily lights up with hope before giving way to disappointment.

Until recently, her job applications had been receiving absolutely no response. Then she trimmed about a decade off her age on her CV. “At least the calls started coming in,” she says.

Gagana is over 40 and has been out of work since September 2013. Her last job was as a secretary for a catering firm. After that closed and a new job became ever more elusive, she went through various phases. The first month was a holiday. She had her severance pay and started getting unemployment benefits.

“In the second month, thoughts about just sitting around doing nothing began to creep in,” she says. “Then I started to go downhill psychologically. I would knock on doors to be told that they’re firing, not hiring. When your whole world is your work, you feel completely adrift.”

There are people in her broader environment who weren’t facing the same problem and believed that it was a passing crisis. She felt they didn’t understand her and started to withdraw. One day she decided to seek help from an expert. Some 18 months ago she was the first person to turn up at the then newly inaugurated Center for Psychological and Social Support for the Long-Term Unemployed in the western Athens suburb of Aegaleo, which provides free individual counseling with a group of psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers and employment consultants. The institution is still in the pilot phase and is funded by the European Union-backed National Strategic Reference Framework (ESPA).

“They helped me out of the maze in which I had become lost,” says Gagana.

Gagana is not alone. Among Greece’s current 1.2 million unemployed, the majority have been out of work for more than a year. According to the EU’s statistical office Eurostat, the long-term unemployed represented 73 percent of Greece’s jobless population in 2014, when the EU average was 50 percent. As the pressure builds on them, they are looking for ways to externalize their negative feelings.

The center in Aegaleo has already helped more than 1,000 people and receives about 100 new inquiries every month. The services it provides follow a welcome trend that has become apparent in the past two years not just in Athens but elsewhere around the country too, for new initiatives providing free psychological support exclusively to the unemployed. In Thessaloniki this year, the Municipality of Neapoli-Sykies launched group therapy sessions for its unemployed residents. In Larissa and Athens more that 100 people have volunteered at free counseling groups set up by psychologists.

“We shared experiences with people who have been through a similar situation and realized that we were not alone,” says Stavroula Karantona, who attended similar sessions in Tripoli this year. The 13 two-hour meetings took place under the auspices of a center for addiction and prevention and mental health set up in cooperation with the OKANA drug rehabilitation program.

Karantona lost her job in the summer of 2013, when the business she was working at went bust.

“My family thought I was wasting my time at the sessions if they couldn’t find me a job,” she says. “But it was not a waste of time for me. It gave me confidence.”

There were another 19 women in her group.

In Larissa, the majority of attendees at similar sessions are also women.

“We have on occasion seen the working wives of unemployed men. They came to us because their husbands were reluctant,” says therapist Giorgos Giannousis. Together with other experts, he is part of the team behind En-Energo, a cooperative endeavor offering free support to unemployed people in Larissa and Athens. Courses run for between four and nine months, with groups of 12-20 people.

“We try to unblock them,” says Dimitris Stavrou, a psychologist responsible for coordinating the Athens groups. “Some of them have become overly dependent on their parents, while others have never really discovered where their real interests lie.”

The experts note that many unemployed people are scared of being stigmatized. One of the psychologists talks about the case of a young man who begged his former employer to pretend that he still worked there on a day that his parents had said they were going to visit his place of employment. Another woman who was fired after 25 years in the same job and sought help from a group in Athens agreed to talk to Kathimerini on the condition of anonymity. She didn’t want her parents’ neighbors back in the village asking why she hadn’t returned to the family home since she couldn’t support herself.

“I didn’t tell my parents I was unemployed, but the psychologist encouraged me to tell them,” says Gagana, who attended 20 sessions at the Aegaleo center.

Some of the patients experience panic attacks and anxiety. According to Maria Vrouva, a psychiatrist at the Aegaleo center, there can be other factors in their lives affecting them other than their jobless status. Once the therapy course is over, the center will refer people to public health facilities if they think it’s necessary.

Every so often, unemployed people reach out to the center in the hope of finding work. Psychologist Margo Liatira explains that this is not what they do. “We are not a job center,” she says. “Our aim is for our clients to acquire self-worth, to come out of their shells, to become more active in their search for work and to understand that there is no shame in seeking help.”

The Aegaleo center is already getting phone calls from long-term unemployed people in Patra, Sparta and other cities around Greece, asking if there are similar programs in their areas.

After reaching out for help, Gagana is now back to sending out CVs, looking for announcements for volunteer positions and taking on whatever part-time work she can find to make a bit of cash, from playing an extra on a television show to participating in market research. She still has moments of despair.

“But I think of what they told me at my support group: that I should never give up trying.”