As though they were afraid to sit down in the circle of chairs set out for the group therapy session, the harassed looking participants lean against the walls exchanging meek greetings. Perhaps they are put off by the prospect of admitting that they can no longer cope, that their debts have driven them to despair.

The icy atmosphere warms slightly when the facilitator finally arrives. It is 6 PM at the Ekpizo centre in downtown Athens which offers support to over-indebted consumers who can no longer make ends meet. “I have heard the same story so many times over the last 18 months,” says Lila Linardatou who works for Ekipzo.

A legal graduate, she offers advice to people attempting renegotiate payment schedules with their banks. “Our goal is to avoid the worst,” she says. Driven to the brink by the crisis, more than 6,000 individuals have already sought assistance from Ekipzo, an organisation staffed by lawyers, psychiatrists and psychologists, all of whom are volunteers.

The minutes go by and the participants seem more at ease. As a group, they bring together a wide range of experiences of over-indebtedness. Consumers who use one credit card to fund another, breadwinners who sink “up to their necks” in debt when they run into health problems, people who live in impossible circumstances hoping for a way out that they never find.

Psychotherapy session does not seek to attribute blame

“The situation is unbearable. The loan companies are calling 10 times a day to threaten us,” says Konstantinos Venerdos who recently retired for health reasons. “I asked for an out of court settlement, but the banks are ignoring me. I only have five euros until the month, and I’m starting to panic. I’ve thought of committing suicide. But I also think about my son. What will happen to him if I give up the ghost?” he says.

Venerdos’ dark thoughts are not unusual. “Over the last few months, four members of the group have committed suicide and dozens of others are only holding on with help from medication. We have to do something or there will be more victims,” says another Ekipzo employee Mikela Christodoulou.

Forced to contend with overwhelming stress, those who seek help from Ekipzo also suffer from health problems, more often than not caused by psychological distress, and in particular heart and stomach problems… “I have just been diagnosed with an an ulcer,” says Dimitri. “All my life, I never owed a drachma to anyone. Today, I can’t pay off my loan,” says the former business owner who does not want us to print his surname. When the crisis grew worse last year, he was forced to close down his shop.

The psychotherapy session does not seek to attribute blame, but responsibility should nonetheless be acknowledged: “I admit that I went into a tailspin, using one credit card to fund another,” explains Mario, a civil servant. “With all the attractive offers from the banks, I ended up with 20 different cards. But then my salary was cut several times, and now I am afraid I will wind up on the street.”