A pandemic of pessimism

The negative effects of the crisis are taking their toll on the Spanish psyche They could be bringing back the return of the inferiority complex with regard to northern Europe

Social discomfort connected to the crisis and in particular the loss of jobs is having a negative effect on health.
Social discomfort connected to the crisis and in particular the loss of jobs is having a negative effect on health.SANTI BURGOS (EL PAÍS)

Con la que está cayendo..." This expression - which literally means "With this downpour," but metaphorically is used as "With things as bad as they are" - keeps cropping up in conversation, as Spaniards spend their days with one eye on the stock market and the other on the risk premium - "which seems like a member of the family right now," according to the sociologist Daniel Kaplún, an expert on public opinion.

It's been like this for many months, and nobody knows when it will end. The economic and financial crisis has brought with it a cloud of social pessimism; a mantle of gloom; a lack of expectations that is cutting deep into the average citizen's state of mind. There truly seems to be no way out.

"There is no future, and therefore no present either," says sociology professor Enrique Gil Calvo, from Madrid's Complutense University.

"We've gone from concern to anguish," adds his colleague José Juan Toharia, from the capital's Autónoma University. La que está cayendo reflects a collective feeling and individual emotions, as well. The triple whammy of anxiety-anger-depression can easily shoot out of control, warns the psychologist Antonio Cano. General practitioners have already noticed it.

The economic crisis has brought with it a cloud of social pessimism

Is there a way out, given the lack of ways out?

"We're experiencing a situation of generalized fear, and rarely were there so many reasons for it: the economy is in free-fall, and jobless claims have grown from 1.8 million to 5.6 million in just four years. Besides, just when we thought we were getting out of a V-shaped crisis, it got worse, and it turns out that it was actually a W," says Gil Calvo.

This has created a "nightmare" feeling ever since the spending cuts were first introduced in 2010. The bad dream comes with a sense of helplessness that feeds a "general despondency."

"There is no cure and nobody there to provide a cure. The Socialist Party failed. The Popular Party [PP] is failing too, and there are no firefighters left," adds Gil Calvo.

And then there is "the Friday syndrome," says the psychiatrist Julio Bobes. As in, let's see what cuts the government makes this time at Friday's weekly Cabinet meeting.

The main victim is the middle class, essentially "those who have lost their job or their source of income, such as small business owners and the self-employed, including those who are unable to collect the money they're owed. Many of them are on the verge of social exclusion, or already there," says Kaplún, who calculates that these individuals make up "over a third of the population."

The triple whammy of anxiety, anger and depression can easily shoot out of control

People who were accustomed to a life of relative luxury are now facing a sequence of events that goes something like this: "Loss of income, reduction in the spending power that grants social visibility and status, like the car, and a drop in spending outside of the home," which is often associated with an element of socializing.

"It's like when you go from eating whatever you want to sticking to a diet," says Bobes.

People suddenly find themselves with too much time on their hands, a problem that often affects men more than women, given that they are less in the habit of doing housework or socializing, adds Kaplún. But both genders feel "a mixture of guilt and shame that makes them turn inward, isolating themselves partly so that they will spend less money."

The situation gets a bit less shameful when colleagues and neighbors eventually find themselves in the same boat. "At that point, one accepts that this is a collective problem and that one no longer needs to conceal his or her own troubles."

And then there are those who are "running scared," who represent nearly another third of the population, Kaplún calculates. These are people whose salaries or profits are still intact, or nearly so, but who keep asking themselves when their turn will come. "They are paralyzed, and stop consuming out of a sense of doubt."

Some spend less because they have no choice, and others because they are afraid of what the future has in store for them. In any case, confidence levels plummet. According to the Center for Sociological Studies (CIS), consumer confidence was at rock bottom in April: 50.3 out of a maximum of 200, which indicates complete optimism. That is 13 points lower than in March. Only one out of every five people surveyed in the poll believes that jobs and the economy will improve in the next six months.

Gloom, listlessness, self-absorption and low self-esteem are rife right now

Gloom, listlessness, self-absorption and low self-esteem are rife. "We've started out being Europe's nouveaux riches, with money from the Germans, and that lasted until 2008. But now we've become the new poor, and our salvation depends once again on Germany, and perhaps France too," says Gil Calvo. "What scares me is that we're being told that we are to blame - that we deserve what we got and that we have to pay our penance for living above our means. We are starting to believe that what they say about us is true."

And thus Spaniards are seeing a return of the old inferiority complex with regard to northern Europe, he warns.

"We're in a state of shock, but that's no accident. [...] There is that one percent of speculators who are making a killing out of all this," notes Kaplún. "We say con la que está cayendo, but that's a euphemism that suggests nobody's to blame. Just like a heavy rain shower that causes floods. But that's not the way it is. The current storm is not falling upon us, it is being thrown at us. The markets are, in reality, made up of people."

In any case, only 18.7 percent of Spaniards believe that the economic situation will be better a year from now, according to the latest CIS opinion poll. Almost nine out of every 10 citizens say that the current situation is either bad or very bad, and six out of 10 consider it to be worse than a year ago. Unemployment is the great scourge of the nation for six out of every 10 respondents, and it personally affects 38.4 percent of them, according to the survey results.

The economic crisis can thus be viewed as a social disease, and also as an individual one. "It creates a feeling like you're no longer in control of your life," says José Luis Linaza, a psychology professor at the Autónoma. "One of the most serious problems we have right now is that a lot of human beings cannot see a clear future for themselves a few years down the line. And we're not talking about just the odd individual," he notes.

"I am amazed at the number of people who stopped sending out their résumés because they are certain that there is no point," says Linaza, adding that the family provides the final safety net for many individuals.

The flood of bad news is causing "saturation," but even if one tries to ignore it, "we've all had to learn economics," says Kaplún.

Antonio Cano, a professor of psychology at the Complutense University and president of the Spanish Society of Anxiety and Stress, says that "politicians do not help citizens handle emotions any better, either."

We've gone from being Europe's 'nouveaux riches' to the EU's new poor"

Cano notes that a person who is out of a job is 2.5 times more likely to suffer from depression or anxiety, but he stops short of diagnosing collective depression. "It does not coincide with the figures: six percent of the population shows signs of anxiety disorders, and four percent have signs of depression," he says.

Although psychiatrists have not noticed a rise in appointments over these kinds of concerns, general practitioners have. "We take our discomfort to the primary care physician," he says.

Doctors confirm this. "The crisis has increased the number of visits relating to psychological malaise," says Josep Basora, president of the Spanish Association of Family and Community Medicine.

The tension, the sleeplessness, the fatigue and the anxiety often extend to the affected person's relatives, who find themselves overloaded with work.

"Before the crisis, 28 percent of visits to the primary care physician had to do with psychological concerns. Now the rate is higher, though there are fewer patient visits," adds Basora.

Spaniards are making fewer appointments with the doctor, "perhaps because of an excess of jobs to do at home and the fear of losing one's job," he says. Yet people would do well to go. "We are seeing that social discomfort affects people's health."

Ultimately, how we react to our surroundings is determined by personality, genetics and social elements like family support, which is "very strong" in Spain and which acts as a cushion against the effects of the crisis. Cano suggests being more optimistic and jogging our memories. "We've overcome other crises. We can take advantage of this one to correct mistakes."

"We need to have clear personal goals, find support even if it is simply moral support, and not throw in the towel," says Linaza. "We need to realize that nobody is going to solve our own problems. Either we see ourselves as part of the solution or there will be no solution."

Kaplún sees a ray of hope in "collective anger," and in initiatives such as the grassroots associations that have cropped up to stop home evictions.

But Gil Calvo puts a damper on all that. "Indignation was possible a year ago, when it seemed possible that some things would change. But that time seems to have passed. Instead of the earlier indignation, we now have resignation."

Personal isolation or collectivization of our troubles? It's a matter of personal style. In the meantime, the rain continues to fall.

Recycling as a route to efficiency


"Transforming what we don't use into jobs and savings." That is how Javier Mariño, the director of environmental services for the cooperative Red Social Koopera, defines an initiative called Koopera Reusing Center, Spain's first automated plant devoted to the management, reutilization and recycling of all types of discarded objects.

The 4,500-square-meter warehouse, located in the Basque town of Mungia, will serve to extend the useful life of clothing, footwear, toys, books and electronic equipment, as well as encouraging social and workplace inclusion.

For now, 264 people are working to collect, classify and process discarded objects, which then become new resources. Many of these workers were formerly recipients of welfare checks for people on the poverty line, while others were at risk of social exclusion.

The deputy general for the province of Bizkaia, José Luis Bilbao, said at the plant's inauguration that the initiative should bring the state around two million euros, thanks to the welfare money it will save and the revenues from recycling. After celebrating the opening by cutting a ribbon made from bits of old fabric, the official said he hoped to see "an increase in reuse and recycling of 13 percent throughout 2012."

Plant managers expect to receive 250,000 kilos of used clothes, 46,000 kilos of old shoes, 6,000 kilos of toys and 5,000 kilos of books on a monthly basis, and that's without factoring in the electronic equipment or the assorted goods, which are expected to represent around 3,000 kilos a month.

Efficiency begins with selective waste collection through a single bin for all kinds of articles. Once at the plant, innovative voice-recognition technology enables workers to classify the goods 60 times faster than through regular techniques. The software recognizes the words being said - "ladies' blouse," "jeans," "toy," "white cotton," and so on - and sends the items down conveyor belts to the treatment area.

Nearly half of what Koopera receives can be fixed and distributed to second-hand stores in the province or sent to a couple of international projects the plant is partnering with in Chile and Romania.

Meanwhile, around 30 percent of the items get partially or completely recycled, thus considerably reducing waste. Through projects like this one, provincial authorities hope to increase the current 1,778 tons of waste that is recycled each year to 3,371 by 2016.

Javier Mariño underscored that Koopera Reusing Center aims to encourage responsible consumption and break the "use and discard" philosophy. Javier Ruiz, the deputy chief of the Basque employment department, said that the plant reflects the change in attitudes that people should adopt during these times of crisis.

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