The third Monday in January, what psychologist Cliff Arnall dubbed Blue Monday, is said to be the most depressing day of the year, as the festive holiday season gives way to the monotony of winter.
For most of us, Blue Monday 2023 is now in the history books. For many Turks, however, the blues are a daily occurrence.
Turkey is stuck in a financial and psychosocial rut that is testing the spirits of even the most optimistic patriot. With a dire political and economic forecast, this year is shaping up to be rough on Turks’ mental health.
Today, nine percent of the country is chronically depressed, and antidepressant consumption over the last five years has surged by 56 percent, according to the Turkish Ministry of Health. In 2017, 13 million psychological examinations were carried out, whereas this was around 9.5 million in 2013. And then there are those suffering in silence – only one in six people with mental health needs in Turkey seek help.
COVID-19 exacerbated this crisis. While depression and anxiety has surged in many countries since the pandemic began, Turkey has been among the hardest hit. A 2020 study in The Lancet medical journal found that Turkey had the biggest spike in COVID-related depression in all of Europe.
Recent numbers paint an even more troubling picture. Gallup’s 2022 State of the Global Workforce Report found that 66 percent of Turks feel stressed on a daily basis, 43 percent are overly worried, 46 percent view themselves as angry, and 40 percent are perpetually sad.
Istanbul, where one-fifth of Turkey’s population lives, is in a league of its own when it comes to mental health. The December 2022 Istanbul Barometer, published by the city’s planning agency, estimated the average stress level of an Istanbulite at 7.3 on a 10-point scale. Half of the survey’s participants blamed the economy for their malaise, as 47 percent said they couldn’t pay their monthly bills.
The skyrocketing cost of housing is one of the main contributing factors. Urban home prices in Istanbul grew more than 212 percent last year – the largest increase in 150 global cities tracked by Knight Frank, a London-based real estate consultancy. Ankara came in second, at 196 percent, and Izmir was third (185.8 percent). Number four on the list, Miami, grew at a comparatively modest 28.6 percent.
Inflation of consumer goods is also hitting Turks’ hard. In November, a block of kasar cheese cost as much as a kilo of red meat. With Turkey’s 12-month consumer price index up more than 137 percent in December, it’s no wonder people are struggling.
While the government has been compliant with the global mental health action plan launched by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2013, it has failed to achieve key milestones. For starters, Turkey has never adopted mental health legislation. A mental health bill drafted in 2014 by the Psychiatric Association of Turkey was still pending in 2022.
Additionally, institutes and services that cater to emotional, psychological, and social well-being are woefully understaffed. The number of employees in the mental health field per 100,000 people in Turkey is 16.33. Europe’s average is 43.5.
There’s a high cost in failing to address the mental health crisis. In 2018, the Turkish Statistical Institute reported an average of nine suicides a day in Turkey. Although the institute has since stopped disclosing suicide statistics, the assumption is that the numbers are not going down.
Poor mental health also carries a financial burden. Depression has been identified by the WHO as the leading cause of disability worldwide. Although it has not been accounted for in Turkey, in the US, depression, which affects roughly 6 percent of the working population, accounts for $210 billion annually in medical costs and lost productivity.
Overall, Turks viewed last year as a disaster. When polled by market research firm Ipsos, a staggering 83 percent said 2022 was a bad year for their country, while 71 percent said Turkey is heading in the wrong direction.
And yet, there is hope that sunnier days are coming. When asked by Ipsos if 2023 might be better than the year that just ended, 54 percent of Turks agreed.
Much will have to go right for Turkey if that optimism is to persist; improving mental health services is a good place to start. The government needs a sustainable and functional plan, and it must gather reliable data to act on it. In a country where the political and economic spheres dictate daily life, there needs to be a well-resourced mental health system to help those who fall on hard times.
Turks aren’t always gloomy, but it’s hard to blame those who are. The sooner the government gets its house in order, the faster we can all put the bad days behind us.
Alexandra de Cramer is a journalist based in Istanbul. She reported on the Arab Spring from Beirut as a Middle East correspondent for Milliyet newspaper. Her work ranges from current affairs to culture, and has been featured in Monocle, Courier Magazine, Maison Francaise, and Istanbul Art News.