Anxiety and mental health issues rise in Turkey as freedoms decline

An increasing number of people in Turkey are suffering from anxiety due to the political atmosphere, unemployment, migration and the economic downturn, experts say. Health Ministry statistics show some 9 million people seek mental health support annually from a population of some 80 million.

Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the government’s far-right junior coalition partner, has been pushing for a mental health bill since last year. According to the figures Bahçeli cited in January, 17 percent of Turks have mental health problems, 3.2 million people suffer depression annually and the number of antidepressants consumed has increased by 56 percent in five years.

Society is deeply polarised in Turkey, which has undergone eight elections in the last five years, a failed coup attempt, transition to an executive presidential system, and the collapse of a peace process with Kurdish militants and a wave of bomb attacks. In the last year, people have been struggling to make ends meet as a result of higher inflation and unemployment.

Mevlüt Ülgen, the head of the Turkish Psychological Association in Izmir, said people had lost hope for the future and had been living in an environment of uncertainty. 

“Living in a never-ending election atmosphere and the desperation of groups that hope for a change, as well as economic and social crises are among reasons for anxiety disorders. The studies show there is a widespread pessimism in Turkish society in recent years,” he said. 

Psychologist Ahmet Özcan said people were suffering from social isolation due to political polarisation and violence, and show symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder. 

“For example, the most important problem of my clients and, in my opinion of many people living in the country, is feeling the surveillance mechanisms of the state deeply. As a result, individuals start building their own prisons and start censoring themselves in every aspect of life, limiting their ways of expression. Delete your Facebook account, do not tweet, stay silent, do not look, do not hear,” he said.

Özcan said the profiles of his clients differed according to their political opinions. “If I talk very generally, among people from the left wing there is a feeling of a huge defeat, failure. They blame themselves all the time, but I observe no such thing among far-right nationalists and people from the right,” he said. 

The Turkish government accuses the Gülen movement, a religious group, of carrying out the coup attempt in 2016. Many members of the group are in prison or being prosecuted, and make up the biggest group among the tens of thousands sacked from government jobs during two years of emergency rule that followed the failed coup. 

The government last year expanded the scope of security checks required for appointments to public sector jobs. People who are subject to such inquiries have to provide information on not only themselves, but also on their relatives. 

“But the ones who are in the worst position are those who have no links to any organisation or religious group, but cannot pass security inquiries due to their relatives’ connections. Many of them come to my office on the verge of suicide,” Özcan said. 

One 27-year-old young man, who declined to be named, said he first went to a psychologist after he was briefly detained during the 2013 Gezi Protests, the biggest anti-government demonstrations in Turkey since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002. For the last 10 months, he has been in regular therapy. 

“Last year I travelled to Europe for a short time and my panic attacks restarted. Maybe I felt bad after I saw the difference between the two worlds,” he said.

He said he talked to his therapist mainly about police violence and social turmoil. “I think those who are abnormal are the ones who do not go to psychologists. Turkey has become a state of terror,” he said. 

Two suicide bombs killed 109 people and wounded 500 more in an attack on a peace march in the capital Ankara in 2015. A university student, who also declined to be named, said she been suffering panic attacks since the incident and had been receiving psychological support for three years, but did not believe it was enough. 

“The anxiety I have today is the result of the fact that this country offers me no future. As long as we do not live in a cave and live under these social circumstances, I believe psychological support cannot do much for our healing,” she said. 

“I come across my friends and the families of my friends in my psychologist’s office. The only thing we have in common is that we were once politically active. We used to see each other on the street, at demonstrations. Now we meet each other in the corridors of our therapists,” she said. 

Ülgen said Turkey’s history was full of trauma and pain and some patients complained that conditions were now worse than during the period of military rule that followed the 1980 coup. 

“We can see re-triggered traumas in such statements. We are living in a country where oppressive regimes have been limiting the freedom of expression, where the mechanisms of justice have not been functioning. This on the one hand reignites past traumas and, especially among young people, creates new traumas,” he said. 

“Although social and economic crises have been continuing, we should continue embracing each other, seeking professional help, and trying to keep our hopes alive,” he said.