Counselling service offers crucial lifeline for Madrid’s unemployed

Making ends meet and worrying daily about where the next meal is going to come from might be the reality for millions of unemployed workers in Spain, but there is another crisis-related issue that is just as pervasive, though much harder to notice: depression.

Carmen Ramos, a seamstress who has been unemployed for two years, tells Equal Times: “I am 52 and I feel useless. Wherever I go they tell me I am too old to work. Both my family and friends try to help me but I isolate myself”.

Feeling alone and despondent, she locked herself at home until a psychologist put her in touch with Psicología Solidaria (PS, or Supportive Psychology in English), a free therapy project based in La Tabacalera social centre in Madrid’s downtown Lavapiés neighbourhood.

Put together by psychologists, community workers and social workers, the free counselling service was born in 2013 to offer support to the city’s unemployed.

The only such project in Madrid, a city of around 3.2 million people, there are currently 70 volunteer therapists looking after 65 unemployed clients at Psicología Solidaria where they meet once a week for an hour and a half.

Last April, Psicología Solidaria created a second group for older, unskilled jobless workers in Madrid’s Manoteras neighbourhood.

It also plans to offer free support for social activists, especially housing rights campaigners, who encounter emotional trauma and physical violence while trying to prevent evictions in Madrid.

According to the World Health Organisation, adults without work are at considerable risk of being affected by mental health issues.

The negative effects of unemployment are well-documented. Depression, anxiety, substance abuse and low self-esteem are just some of the consequences of being out of work, especially over a long period of time.

Psicología Solidaria aims to help people combat those feelings.
“Our work goes beyond therapy. It is about politics, transformation, social criticism and mobilisation,” says Juan Álvarez-Ude one of the group’s therapists.

“The group experience is truly positive,” says Rosa Estévez, who was a local newspaper journalist for 25 years before recently being made unemployed.

“You have a weekly meeting with people who share your fears. The only thing we have in common is unemployment: from that point on everything is about building, about caring for each other,” she tells Equal Times.

Another participant describes how the meetings give him a reason to try to start engaging with life again. “This is a very hurtful system and the group acts as a shelter to protect from it,” explains Alfonso Caravaca, a former restaurant owner.

Participants pay for their therapy through a “time bag” system (they avoid using the most popular term of “time bank” because of its negative financial connotations). In exchange for the counselling sessions they are deployed to work on social projects ranging from running La Tabacalera’s public library to organising poetry and theatre workshops to mobilising against the downtown gentrification of Madrid.

“By taking part in these projects our members manage to break their isolation and create a new social net,” says Àlvarez-Ude.

He further explains: “It is not just about losing a job and its effects on relationships and family. Especially in the case of men, who see themselves as the traditional breadwinner, the person feels guilty and experiences a personal failure, a personal deficiency”.

One of the aims of the therapy, Àlvarez-Ude says, is to help people realise that the issue of their joblessness “is not an individual problem but a social and a systemic one”.


Relieving the guilt

Spain continues to feel the impact of the 2007 economic crisis – and its subsequent austerity measures.

Recent figures show that at the end of 2014 there were 837,000 Spaniards working just one hour per week.

Data also shows that one worker in three earns less than the minimum wage of €757 per month.

The economic collapse combined with the general decline in people’s quality of life has increased the percentage of the population suffering from exogenous (also known as situational or reactive) depression.

In fact, since 2007, the number of patients attending primary care centres with anxiety or depression has increased by 10 per cent, according to a report published by the Spanish Foundation of Psychiatry and Mental Health titled Depression: a challenge for European National Health Systems.

The European Journal of Public Health also indicated that clinical depression has increased from affecting 29 per cent of the population in 2006 to 47 per cent in 2010.
And there are very few services available for those suffering from depression, which makes the work of Psicología Solidaria so critical for its users.

“It is really difficult for people to understand what it is like to be unemployed,” says 32-year old community worker Dacil Martin.

“People see you as a lazy person. They tell me I must be less demanding. At least here I find some relief and empathy”.

Participants often enter in the group with strong feelings of hopelessness, but it is hoped that by sharing their pain with people going through similar experiences, they will start to feel less anxious.

“If I have been looking for a job for five years without getting one, it is normal to have gloomy ideas about the future. But when in front of me there are people feeling the way I do, things change totally,” argues Santiago Occhiuzzi, one of the group’s therapists and a housing rights activist.

The experience of this group reflects the profound impact of the crisis in Spain, particularly with regards to what many citizens consider to be a total lack of understanding about what those most in need want from Spain’s social institutions.

“Our government does not worry about its jobless,” says Lola Valgar, an administrative officer who made redundant after 25 years with the Spanish department store El Corte Inglés.

“It thinks that by giving us benefits [which ranges from €400-€800 a month] – a miserable amount of money – then that is all. But the government has to motivate us, and to invest in our training and psychological care. But there is money only to bail out the banks”.