To most people, Greek islands are synonymous with vacation time: Crystal clear water, white houses under the everlasting blue sky, beaches and culinary delicacies. But once autumn sets in and the heavy clouds start drifting, the islands become desolate and deserted. The local islanders sit down and wait for the summer and the tourists to return.
Kalliopi Legaki has created a deep and contemplative documentary about the mental health of the isolated populations of the Cyclades islands and the efforts to help them. In When the South Wind Blows, we follow the work of the Mobile Health Unit based on the island of Paros, and witness the encounters between the therapists and their patients in the communities.
Mobile Health Units
Take Nikos Mouratos. He owns a restaurant that is a popular tourist hangout in summer, but during the grey season his reality is different. «You get mad,» we hear him saying. «I wish a car would run me over, but no cars are passing. Moreover stress from work, expenses, staff and so on. I can’t cope with this.» Mr Mouratos is from Athens, but work conditions there were difficult. To move was a rushed decision. «You come to the islands in the summer and when winter comes you find yourself in a completely deserted place with not a soul around.»
Once autumn sets in and the heavy clouds start drifting, the islands become desolate and deserted.
This, of course, has always been part of life on the islands. People are familiar with the notion of depression and in the past they did seek treatment. Before the Mobile Health Unit was established people went to the island of Syros to seek psychiatric help. Or they had to go to Athens, which was the most common solution. But it was very costly, with ferry boat and hotel, and they took leave from work for several days. As a result many did not go at all.
These days, thirty mental health professionals set out from Paros to cover the psychiatric needs in geographically isolated areas. A team visits each island every two weeks offering services to local health centres. This is free of charge for the people on the island, and Stella Pantelidou, the director of the program, can see rewarding results. People that have isolated themselves and kept away from society start to get integrated and involved, taking active roles in their community.
A collective condition
It is a daunting task. The therapists encounter a «pact of denial», as the professionals call it. They are dealing with small and close-knit communities that are used to keeping to themselves. One islander says that the city slickers do not understand them and are not to be trusted.
This is the core message of the film, and it is an issue that you will probably find in a lot of outlying areas across the globe. The fact that there is a perceived difference between the city professionals and the locals is highly relevant in our seemingly globalised world.
When you live on an island, you get into close contact with nature, one person says. Many people still think that the south wind setting in with the autumn weather drives you mad. It causes nervous tension. When it is cloudy it gets on your nerves. And on top of this are all the local differences.
The fact that there is a perceived difference between the city professionals and the locals is highly relevant in our seemingly globalised world.
The island of Andros is a good example. The northern parts of the island are barren, whereas you find an abundance of water in the central parts. People on the island are accordingly different. There are conflicts and rivalries, which are sometimes totally explained by the landscape. The island is hiding a lot of historical treasures, and it is hiding the minds of its people. The experience of the locals, especially during the winter, is isolation. That creates a particular psychological collective condition. Part of it is a strong wish to keep the mentally ill within the family without the community knowing what is going on. There are serious prejudices hidden in the silence.
The film visualises it all – a rugged mountaintop with dark drifting clouds says a lot. These are rugged people that suffer in silence. You see it on the neighbouring islands of Paros and Antiparos. Paros is an island of seamanship with a long maritime tradition. It is relatively open to the world. On the other hand Antiparos has been a closed agricultural society with closely guarded secrets. Antiparos witnessed three cases of suicide over a five-year span, an alarming number for a small population of just 950 souls. As an aside, we are told that women prefer to end their lives with pills while men shoot or hang themselves.
The experience of the locals, especially during the winter, is isolation.
It is no simple task for the psychiatric professionals to overcome the newcomer stigma. It takes a lot of time and patience to gain the trust of the locals, and they do it through countless meetings with family members and the local priest. The results are to be seen. Taboos are broken, and step-by-step people accept that a mental problem is not the end of the world.
When the South Wind Blows has a compelling story. It might have been beneficial to cut it a bit shorter here and there, but on the other hand the rhythm of the story is very much in correspondence with the pace of life on the islands – when the southern winds blow and the dark thoughts set in.