“It’s a real relief to the soul,” confides one of them, Artemis, preparing jars filled with honey.

On the “Caserma” estate, the Social Cooperative of the island of Leros, the first of its kind in Greece, works to provide professional development for people suffering from psychiatric disorders.

In a buzz of wings, the residents of a dozen hives feed on the fields of lavender, oregano and other aromatic herbs, which spread out around a renovated former Italian barracks.

“It’s paradise for bees!” Says Andreas Georgiou, occupational therapist and president of the Social Cooperative (KOISPE) of the Dodecanese, which cultivates and maintains the estate.

The cooperative has existed in Leros for 20 years to the day.

Its objective: to enable the patients of the psychiatric hospital to have not only a paid job, but also a valued one, through their work in the fields and the packaging of honey and aromatic herbs.

“Work therapy is the goal,” says Mr. Georgiou, so that employees with psychiatric disorders acquire “professional skills and prospects”.

Main method: as much “versatility as possible”: “from the hive to the honey and from picking to packaging the herbs, everyone does their part”, he adds.

The KOISPE of Leros employs thirteen people supervised by specialized beekeepers and by a team of nurses and occupational therapists from the island’s psychiatric hospital.

In Lepida, south of the port, the employees prepare the honey within the hospital itself. They have premises there to package the honey and put the aromatic herbs to dry.

“We try to stay as traditional as possible,” Artemis told AFP. “I love what I’m doing here,” he says, “it’s a real soul-relief for me.”

– “Deinstitutionalize asylums” –

Leros, a small 53 km2 island in the Dodecanese archipelago, has been home to a mental asylum since the late 1950s.

He had been at the heart of a major patient abuse scandal in the early 1990s.

“After this dark time for Leros and thanks to the reforms launched by the Greek government and the European Union, the KOISPEs were born. Ours is the first of its kind in Greece”, insists Andreas Georgiou.

“The reforms launched more than 20 years ago have radically changed the care of patients, in a desire to deinstitutionalise asylums”, continues Giannis Loukas, psychiatrist and former director of the psychiatric center.

“The KOISPE like that of Leros are part of these developments”, he says with satisfaction.

Because “the therapeutic gain is immense” for the sick, notes the psychiatrist. They can thus “work normally and enjoy the rights of employees, instead of working on the black market, as was done for a long time in Leros and elsewhere in Greece”.

While some patients reside in the psychiatric hospital, “a large number of them live in apartments on the island” for better “integration into society. A fact that is not necessarily self-evident in Greece”, specifies the practitioner.

A handful of them have since managed to reintegrate into the plumbing industry in Leros or the hotel industry in Rhodes.

– “The cooperative resists” –

In addition to the therapeutic work, “the cooperative participates in the local economy”, explains to AFP Dimitris Hantzandonis, expert in social economy, who contributed to the creation of the KOISPE of the Dodecanese.

The honey of the “Caserma”, ISO certified, can thus be found on a large part of the stalls of the island.

However, the structure remains fragile in terms of its funding.

Endowed with “own capital, made up of shares of cooperators, in addition to sales of honey and herbs”, the cooperative sometimes has difficulty “planning an activity over the medium term”, explains this doctor of economics.

Public funding certainly contributes to its financial health, but the payments are not regular and depend “on the goodwill of the Greek Ministry of Health”, deplores Mr. Hantzandonis.

But to assure: “despite the difficulties, the cooperative resists”.