In the somewhat edgy, yet lively and up-and-coming neighbourhood of Kerameikos, as you walk past a scattering of cozy, youth-filled cafes and bars, you’ll arrive at a restaurant with the curious name Mentaleaty Asian Food Therapy.
Created by the Athina-Elipis social cooperative that started in 2011, bolstered by European Union funding, Mentaleaty offers employment opportunities to individuals with severe mental health issues as well as offering all profits toward their care. “A group of us started the Athina-Elpis social cooperative in 2011,” says psychologist Effie Koutsi.
“The objective was to provide good employment opportunities to individuals who otherwise have little or no chance of earning their own money and getting social benefits, and to help them integrate socially. We started by running a cleaning service for public and private businesses and organisations. After that we ran a small photocopy shop in a clinic for people with Alzheimer’s, and next a small café. Mentaleaty is our most recent project, opening at the start of 2016”.
The team opted for Asian cuisine in order to stand out from the largely Greek-oriented restaurants currently in the area. With significant help from the Impact Hub Athens (an incubator and accelerator for businesses in Greece) they went for a minimal, modern and playful décor that is attractive to their varied clientele of young people, vegan – vegetarians, groups of friends seeking an original outing and artists. While there I try a selection of dishes such as a Thai salad with mango that packed a punch of succulent flavours, a stir-fried Nasi Goreng, and crunchy cream cheese parcels with sweet chilli sauce. As a huge fan of Asian cuisine – from Thailand and India to China, Korea and Japan, I was definitely satisfied by the tastes.
Although the EU funding Athina-Elpis had when they started ran out at the end of 2015, they have managed to remain financially afloat, thanks to the loving support and solid professional co-operations they obtain. “Mentaleaty and our other initiatives have proven very successful,” beams Koutsi, because people know they can rely on us. The people who apply to work for us — chiefly individuals with psycho-social issues, or those diagnosed with severe psychiatric conditions (mainly psychosis), severe mood disorders, or borderline personality disorders — first need to go through an interview with us, during which we assess how well they can function in a job, whether they strictly follow their medical treatment that has been administered to them, and that they don’t experience regular episodes. Above all we have to be completely confident that the individual has been stabilised.”
Koutsi remarks that the greatest reward she and her colleagues get from their mainly volunteering-based efforts is witnessing the visible transformation in the employees, as they start living something closer to a normal life. “It can be very emotional to see this happen!” she says, as tears well up in her eyes. “I see people change so much,” smiles Koutsi. “Their faces become more beautiful, their behaviour, and new sense of self-confidence and self-respect shifts, there is a new purpose in the way they live their life! It’s wonderful to see how people develop a sense of social responsibility by working, and earning their own money – their life regains meaning.”
Always looking towards the future, Athina-Elpis is already dreaming up plans for a social franchise that will see more restaurants like Mentaleaty around Athens. “We would like to inspire a movement,” Koutsi says, “to make our mission known. We want people to understand the huge charisma and potential that individuals with mental health issues have, to see that despite the problems they have in a certain area, mental health does not need to be an issue!”
*All images by Photographer: Ippokratis Navridis & MENTALEATY
As first published in Greek City Times