Following the devastating Turkey-Syria earthquake on February 6, 2023, both governments and NGOs alike have begun mobilizing much-needed aid to the most affected areas. What one cannot overlook, however, is the trauma and mental health effects that the earthquake induced. The psychological impact that devastating natural disasters can have is significant on its own. Together with previous traumas, including war, disease and other natural disasters, mental health support becomes a crucial part of providing aid to victims, which is the case in both Turkey and Syria.
Natural Disasters and Mental Health
According to a review of various studies by the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care, a sudden disruption of victims’ lives, which “brings loss for individuals, families and communities,” heightens the despair and shock that often follows the immediate aftermath of a devastating natural disaster. Individuals’ roles in their respective communities are also experiencing disruption, which can lead to a loss of identity. A lack or loss of resources and a disruption in daily routine further worsen acute psychological stress, which often results in overwhelming stress, grief and sadness, leading some to turn to substance abuse to cope with their new conditions.
The experiences of natural disaster victims can manifest into serious prolonged psychological issues, including “emotional instability, stress reactions, anxiety, trauma and other psychological symptoms.” Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is also very common and coexists with feelings of “unnecessary fear, hopelessness, worthlessness and helplessness.” Although the journal notes that “most affected individuals recover with time” when they receive care, some individuals have a far more difficult path to recovery and can even begin experiencing persistent and severe psychotic symptoms.
Trauma in Children
The psychological impacts of the Turkey-Syria earthquake are present in both countries, particularly among children, who are perhaps the most vulnerable population that the natural disasters affect. According to Save the Children, numerous psychologists showed concern about the mental well-being of the roughly 7 million children that the earthquake affected, citing various indicators of acute stress, including “nightmares, aggression or being withdrawn.” The potential long-term effects are concerning as well, as these stressors can impact school performance and overall quality and enjoyment of life. Save the Children also stresses that mental health aid is evermore crucial considering that many caregivers do not have information or resources on how to treat or manage these symptoms.
Pre-Existing Mental Health Crisis
The Turkey-Syria earthquake only adds to pre-existing mental health issues in Turkey and Syria. Significant numbers of people in both countries suffer from mental health disorders. In Turkey, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that 17% of Turkey’s population faces mental health issues, while only about 10.8% seek mental health treatment each year. WHO also states that cases of anxiety and depression have significantly increased in recent years, citing “repeated natural disasters, migration, economic downturn and the COVID-19 pandemic” as primary causes.
In 2022, the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) conducted a study that demonstrates the severity of the mental health crisis in Syria. The results showed that male household members showed signs of distress in 60% of households surveyed, with that number being 58% for women. Additionally, 27% of households report psychological stress in their children, and 26% of children stated that the reason they do not want to attend school is because of depression, unhappiness and/or lack of motivation.
Syrian refugees in Turkey are also at risk of mental health disorders. According to 2020 data from the World Health Organization, the depression and PTSD rates among Syrian refugees in Turkey who have experienced the conflict were 11% and 15%, respectively. WHO also estimates that 22% of overall suffer from a mental disorder.
Providing much-needed mental health services to those who the Turkey-Syria earthquake affected is a crucial aspect of aid. Enhanced Learning and Research for Humanitarian Assitance (ELRHA) has recommended its own Community-based Disaster Mental Health Intervention (CBDMHI) manual as a relevant and potentially useful tool for mental health support. Developed in October 2016 following a devastating earthquake in Nepal in April 2015, the manual aims to teach mental health service providers about various self-care practices, as well as how to effectively treat mental health symptoms in earthquake survivors. The organization distributed more than 2,000 manuals to local governments and NGOs and found that the intervention helped both mental health service providers and vulnerable community members alike, reducing depression and increasing job satisfaction for the former and reducing depression and PTSD for the latter.
Save the Children is also mobilizing mental health aid to areas that the Turkey-Syria earthquake affected. It currently has mental health support teams in the region who are instructing caregivers on how to support their children through their trauma. The organization is also “setting up child-friendly spaces and child-focused psychosocial support activities” along with other forms of assistance to children and families.
Providing mental health services during this time is crucial to ensuring that victims can return to their pre-disaster lives as soon as possible. The work of NGOs, as well as funding from the U.N., will be valuable in achieving this.
– Adam Cvik