ONE of the saddest consequences of the economic crisis ravaging Greece is that suicide has risen steadily in a country where the number of people taking their own life used to be comparatively low. The official statistics are bad enough, but they almost certainly under-state the phenomenon. In 2011 it was recorded that 393 Greek men and 84 women had taken their own lives; that was up from 336 men and 41 women in 2010. Klimaka, a Greek NGO which drew attention to these figures, reckons that serious suicide attempts (regardless of the outcome) are 15-20 times more frequent than recorded suicides.
Every so often a dramatic act of despair catches the country’s imagination. In spring last year a 77-year-old retired pharmacist shot himself in the head in the central square of Athens, leaving a note saying that he could not bear the idea of “scavenging in dustbins for food and becoming a burden to my child…” And anybody who knows Greece well can probably think of at least one acquaintance whose death was prompted, entirely or in part, by financial desperation.
One reason why official suicide rates are misleadingly low is the social, and spiritual, stigma attached to the act. As with most Christian denominations, suicide is condemned by the Orthodox church, to which most Greeks, with widely varying levels of conviction, formally belong. By its own rules, the church should refuse the usual burial rites to a person who has taken his own life, although the rules may be relaxed if it can be shown the balance of the mind was disturbed.
For all these reasons, a pronouncement by the Archbishop of Athens on the subject of suicide commands attention. Archbishop Ieronymos, a more sympathetic and less verbose figure than some of his recent predecessors, addressed [in Greek] the issue in a newspaper column yesterday, using a tone that was pretty humane, as church statements on the matter go. Suicide, he wrote in Kathimerini, could be undertaken for many reasons, none of them ultimately well-founded: ranging from simple despair to a desire to punish our nearest and dearest, or even to regain the love of people who see us as a failure. It sometimes reflected a person’s loss of a relationship with God or a desire to punish God.
“I won’t go on any longer, so as to not to give the wrong impression that I judge harshly the people who resort to the act in question. Our respect for their memory and the love we feel for them as unique human persons must remain undiminished,” he added. (Those are not easy words for an Orthodox bishop to say; they recall some of the more humane recent pronouncements of Pope Francis.) But the archbishop urged the media not to glamorise acts of suicidal protest.
As you’d expect from a Christian hierarch, he rejected the secular-humanist view of suicide as a valid personal choice, a view summed up by the title of a popular British play: “Whose life is it anyway?” As he put it: “The universal principles of personal freedom and self-determination cannot be called into question…but they do have limits. They cannot remain unlimited when, applied in a certain way, they cause so much pain.” While insisting that suicide was the wrong way to utter a cry of despair, the archbishop urged all those affected or bereaved by the act to reflect on their own failure to offer succour in time.
When Greek clergy have hit the headlines in recent times, it has often been for lamentable reasons: because they are fighting inter-church turf wars or embroiled in financial scandals. To his credit, Archbishop Ieronymos has largely avoided those traps, and he has spoken out against the anti-immigrant racism, some of it using quasi-religious rhetoric, which has raised its head in Greece. And whether people fully agree with it or not, this latest intervention will also be received with respect.