By Eamon O’Callaghan
More and more of Turkey’s youth are finding themselves battling to maintain their mental health, with prices in the troubled country soaring while the lira continues to drop in value.
Turkey’s economic crisis is one which has plagued it for years. Over the last 12 months alone, the country has averaged a staggering inflation rate of 63.72%, consistently driving up the cost of living for everyday Turkish people. As prices rise and the minimum wage remains insufficient, youth around the country are dealing with more financial stress than ever before, taking a serious toll on their mental wellbeing. According to 2020 data from the Ministry of Health of Turkey (MoH), 17% of the population experience mental health issues, 3.2 million people suffer from depression, and antidepressant consumption had increased by 56% in the previous five years.
Doğa Ölmez (22) is a second-year student of industrial design at Istanbul’s Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University. For Doğa, the state of the country’s economy has meant that she can’t live her youth in the way she’d envisioned. “When I was little, I always dreamed of going abroad and seeing the world,” she says, “but now I can’t even buy an airplane ticket to my hometown.” As a result, Doğa is only able to see her parents around once a year. “I miss them a lot.” The 22-year-old says that her whole life is has turned into a cycle of studying, going to school, and coming home again – with no opportunity or budget to spend time with her friends. This monotony has significantly affected her mental health, as well as that of her friends. “We all feel so depressed,” Doğa continues, “I wanted to get some therapy but it’s just too expensive. So now we all just talk to each other, being each other’s therapists.”
Ferhan Balci (22) has also been impacted by the economic situation in Turkey. Originally from Ankara, he moved to Istanbul to find work. Like many of his friends, Ferhan suffers from depression. He describes the Turkish employment cycle as “mental torture.” Long hours and a 6-day work week deteriorate people’s mental wellbeing, while a normal lifestyle remains unsustainable due to the low minimum wage that is the standard in Turkey. The 8,506.80 lira minimum wage remains less than the average price of renting a home in Istanbul, which exceeds 13,000 lira. As a result, Ferhan – and many others – hope that they will be able to move abroad. “I will definitely miss my country if I ever leave, but I have no other choice. I cannot live here,” he explains, “I cannot build a happy life. I cannot marry or have a child, it’s too expensive. If none of this happens then you’re basically not living anyway.” At this point, Ferhan has lost whatever hope that he had for the economy to improve, instead expecting it to weaken further. “Hopefully soon the population will be at the point where they are on the streets, shouting for change,” he says. “Change will definitely come, but not in a short period of time.”
His own mental health issues are not the only way that the situation in Turkey has affected Ferhan. “I was actually married to a woman,” he quietly confides. “She killed herself.” He says that his wife, after taking out a loan to study psychology at university, grew increasingly hopeless as inflation in the country made her debt grow larger and larger. After repeatedly postponing her repayments, she could only watch as she was plunged further and further into financial ruin. In addition to these economic issues, Ferhan explains a multitude of cultural factors which contributed to her – and countless others – reaching this point. “She was left out of society because she was an atheist,” he says, “she didn’t want to wear hijab…her parents kicked her out of the house.” Ferhan says that eventually, “she was in a point of no solution” thanks to her debt, and “felt alone in this society”. Unable to leave the country, these factors and a distinct lack of freely accessible support systems – there is no free suicide hotline in Turkey – ultimately led to her tragic death. This situation is not one which is uncommon. Ferhan himself has also lost contact with his family due to his atheist beliefs. He says that people who differ from the status quo, like non-muslims or members of the LGBT+ community, “will probably lose your family… you will end up alone.”
It’s difficult to gain an understanding of the country’s current suicide rate, as the most recent data available is from 2019, when it rose by 4.35% to 2.4 people per 100,000. As the worst of Turkey’s economic crisis has occurred since then, in addition to the Covid-19 pandemic and the more recent earthquakes in February this year, many believe this figure to be far higher at this point. Leader of the Republican People’s Party and President Erdoğan’s main opposition, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, in 2019 blamed two mass suicides on the economic struggles in Turkey, before suicide statistics stopped being published.
Ümit Akırmak, Associate Professor of Psychology at Istanbul Bilgi University, says that Turkey definitely doesn’t have enough support systems in place for dealing with mental issues. In addition to the lack of a suicide hotline, he says that “in Turkey, [most] support is social support from friends and family.” He highlights the issue with this system, saying that “there are some things that you can’t really say to your friends and family. That’s when you need support from somebody else, and many don’t have [that option].”
It’s yet to be seen how Turkey’s future will play out. It will likely be a long and difficult road back towards economic stability, but hopefully looking forward there is change on the horizon, as well as hope for the mental health of the Turkish youth.