Increased work-related suicide linked to broader societal problems

Turkish society is going through one of its lowest points with the rise of suicide among labourers, doctors, civil servants and teachers in the wake of social, political and economic turmoil.

A report published by the Occupational Health and Safety Council revealed that at least 99 workers killed themselves between 2013-2015. According to Forensic Reports, this number has increased to 233 since 2016.

But many say that the numbers published by the Occupational Health and Safety Council might not reflect the true extent of worker suicides, particular for professions at risk.

Pulmonologist Dr Coşkun Canıvar, who is also a member of the Occupational Health and Safety Council, says that workers in the healthcare sector are often more prone to suicide than other professions. According to him, 431 physicians have died by suicide in the past three years.

Dr Coşkun Canıvar
Dr Coşkun Canıvar

 

"The suicide rates in Turkey are 3.8 or 4 in 100,000. For healthcare workers, this rate ranges between 15 and 20 for every 100,000 people. That's four or five times more. There are also female healthcare workers among those who die by suicide."

According to the World Health Organisation, the global suicide rate was 10.7 per 100,000 in 2015.

The contributing factors are many. Physicians experience a fear of violence on a daily basis either from the relatives of patients or from patients themselves. Last June, the Emergency Association of Turkey released figures that revealed 78% of emergency room physicians experienced violence from the family of patients in the previous year.

Doctors also face severe working conditions, low wages, and workplace mobbing, which is a form of group bullying. Doctors who cannot seem to hold onto life are turning to suicide.

Teachers are also at risk. During the 17-year rule of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), 54 teachers succumbed to suicide who were waiting for teaching appointments, a significant issue in the country that could take more than a decade to fix. As of the beginning of this year, nearly half a million teachers were unemployed and waiting to be assigned.

Turkey is not unfamiliar with work-related deaths. The country ranks third in the world and first in Europe in terms of occupational fatalities. Unfortunately, trade unions and civil society organisations have fallen short in bringing attention to worker suicide in contrast to their response to workplace deaths. 

The deaths of workers at constructions sites at Istanbul’s new airport as a result of unsafe working conditions have made nationwide and international headlines, however, there has been very little coverage on and steps taken to combat worker suicide.

However, according to Nuran Gülenç, an occupational health and safety specialist, “worker suicides should be included within the scope of occupational deaths.” Workers who are fired from their job, Gülenç says, are driven to loneliness and helplessness and live in constant fear of not being able to find employment, all of which leads to suicide.

Nuran Gülenç
Nuran Gülenç

 

Dr Canıvar told Ahval News that large-scale events that affect the entire society can also trigger suicides. According to him, the widespread crackdown following the failed coup attempt in July 2016 increased the number of suicides. After July 15th, Canıvar says, 10,500 healthcare workers were dismissed from their jobs; 6,000 were physicians. These dismissals showed healthcare workers that their employment is insecure.

“People live in a state of fear and panic. The state's direct dictatorial-fascist policies are reflected in the loss of human life - in the last three years, 43 health workers have committed suicide. This figure doesn't include the 431 [mentioned earlier].”

These dismissals over ties with the Gülen group that the government maintains is responsible for the foiled putsch were not limited to the healthcare sector. Since July 2016, roughly 170,000 teachers, judges, police officers and civil servants have been dismissed.

Psychiatrist Cemal Dindar agrees and provided Ahval News with a broader view of societal factors in Turkey that have led to a spike in worker suicides. In addition to working as a healthcare physician, Dr Dindar has also penned books about President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called “Allegiance and Fury,” “Language of Fury” and “New Turkey Syndrome.”

cemal dindar
Psychiatrist Cemal Dindar

 

Dr Dindar noted that working and living conditions among the working classes have worsened in recent years.

"When, alongside the worsening of these living conditions, the possibility of developing the willpower to voice objections to this deterioration is taken away, incidences of suicide come to the fore. On the one hand, shopping centres have been erected on every corner, and there has been a sense of directionlessness that has fuelled the cycle of consumption in a tempting market. We're talking about a life stuck between these two dynamics."

According to Dindar, society has been sharply divided into "good and evil" since 2010, particularly when a 2010 constitution referendum divided the nation that led that incumbent AKP to wield more power over the judiciary.

“I think this rapid transformation undermined social ties. In particular, I'm talking about peace and related concepts that turned out to be meaningless or were deprived of their meaning. These disturbances had negative effects on all levels of society. For example, gendered violence has also increased, and violence against women has almost become the norm.”

Gülenç, the occupational health and safety specialist, says the responsibility for these deaths lies with the state as enshrined in Turkey’s Constitution and with employers.

“The elimination of the welfare state and the inadequacy or absence of social measures protecting workers has revealed this painful picture.”

Gülenç told Ahval News that Article 49 of Turkey's Constitution states the following:

"The State shall take the necessary measures to raise the standard of living of workers, and to protect workers and the unemployed in order to improve the general conditions of labour, to promote labour, to create suitable economic conditions for prevention of unemployment and to secure labour peace."

According to Dr Dindar, a rapid shift in who provides social services could be a reason for the uptick in worker suicides.

“Most of the families of workers come from a culture that is dependent on the land or supported by an extended family. But the trade unions were the place where solidarity could be organised and where these extended family bonds could be cleared out, filling the ‘alms culture’ that was put in place by the state. Perhaps in recent times, the decrease of state facilities, the breakdown of the notion of the 'Mother State' as well as the idea that 'we are a family' and the transformation of the state into a punishing parent could have been the causes of suicides. That extended family will not come back, but the solidarity can."

Adnan Serdaroğlu, chairman of the United Metal Works, says with the state’s withdrawal from providing basic services such as healthcare, education and social security, many people have to fend for themselves for their fundamental needs such as housing and nourishment.

"People have been overwhelmed by the feeling of 'social burnout' physically and mentally in the face of these challenges. People feel that they cannot manage this crisis with the coping mechanisms found in this environment, and they may see suicide as another way of coping - perhaps as a silent shriek or form of resistance."

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.