Türkiye’s civil society leading vital efforts to heal post-earthquake trauma

Andy CleveAndy Cleve | Updated: 22-03-2023 11:37 IST | Created: 22-03-2023 11:32 IST
Türkiye’s civil society leading vital efforts to heal post-earthquake trauma
Representative Image. (Photo Credit - Reuters) Image Credit: ANI

The two earthquakes that struck parts of Türkiye and Syria last month shocked the world in the scale of devastation they caused. Over 50,000 people lost their lives while nearly 200,000 people were evacuated from the region. Millions have been affected, including in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon.

The international community’s response has been heartening. Over 250,000 rescue workers from 81 different countries, including nearly 10,000 volunteers, came together in a rapid response that was crucial in saving lives and helping survivors of the disaster to safety. Now, as immediate rescue efforts wind down, Türkiye will look to recover and rebuild its devastated infrastructure.

But while rebuilding critical infrastructure is essential, the mental scars left by the earthquakes will not fade quickly. As Türkiye moves forward, it must not neglect the trauma suffered by the survivors of this calamity.

The long shadow of trauma

The horror of the earthquakes constitutes a collective trauma in the region, with experts warning a mental health crisis is likely to follow. In particular, children are likely to be the most affected, with UNICEF warning that more than 5.4 million children living in the affected regions are at risk of developing anxiety, depression, and PTSD.

Survivors of natural disasters, many of whom have lost loved ones, struggle with a range of negative emotions and pathologies, including fear, anxiety, guilt, and even distrust of others. What’s more, workers and volunteers involved in rescue operations are also likely to suffer trauma, notably post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But catastrophes of this magnitude often have a significant ripple effect, with collective trauma shared by the people of an entire nation.

For those affected, coping with trauma will be a long-term process. The harsh reality is that many will not receive the help they need; however, there are some immediate measures that can be taken to help survivors–starting with acknowledging their trauma and helping them begin to process it.

Psychologists argue that the first step towards healing is talking about the disaster and expressing thoughts and feelings out loud. If psychosocial first aid and related support methods are not available during the grieving process, they warn, many could be at risk of developing serious disorders, including depression, PTSD, or substance abuse, that will only become more difficult to address with time.

Civil society stepping up

Many aid organisations have recognised the value of providing psychological support and counseling in disaster regions, and now incorporate it alongside traditional aid measures such as providing food, water, and medical support.

These holistic aid measures can take many forms. For instance, the Vuslat Foundation, which has offices in Istanbul and London, is partnering with the Federation of Women Associations to send container dwellings to affected areas in Türkiye – both to the regions devastated by the earthquake and the cities where survivors have fled. Recognising that they are disproportionately impacted by natural disasters, each of these dwellings will be converted into support centres for women and children, where they will be provided with essential items such as hygiene products, as well as more intangible support including access to vital, comprehensive health and well-being services from gynaecologists, nurses, psychologists, and social workers.

Other Turkish NGOs operating on the ground are also bringing their unique disaster response approaches to help survivors. In addition to its highly effective integrated model of psychosocial, food security, and shelter support, Hayata Destek is planning an innovative partnership with the Ministry of Family and Social Services to implement a range of gender and age-specific, on-site activities, including the Female Children Empowerment, Male Children Empowerment, and Parent Support Programmes.

Yet other humanitarian organisations are creatively incorporating art and play in their psychological support services for those affected by the earthquakes. For example, the Maya Foundation is engaged in art-oriented psychosocial support activities aimed at empowering children and young people, while the Mediterranean Youth Association conducts play therapy to support the psychosocial well-being of young children who have relocated from the earthquake-affected areas and the Colourful Hopes Association organises two-month play workshops for children living in tents and shelters.

Generous listening offers an innovative path to healing

The Vuslat Foundation, in particular, highlights the importance of expressing trauma, advocating for the simple act of listening as a tool to reduce tension and resolve conflicts. In particular, the Vuslat Foundation emphasizes the proven benefits of “generous listening,” which involves listening with compassion, patience, and understanding. Through listening closely to each other's stories of trauma, disaster survivors develop mutual compassion and understanding.

To facilitate this process, the Foundation is planning to organise listening circles to help support all those who are struggling with post-earthquake trauma in Türkiye. These listening circles bring together a group of people led by psychologists and volunteers to share and listen to each other in a safe, respectful space. Crucially, listening circles give disaster survivors an opportunity to express themselves openly and honestly, without fear of judgment or criticism. By fostering these supportive environments, listening circles can help to build trust, relationships, resilience and understanding that promote healing and growth and combat feelings of loneliness and disconnection.

Beyond providing a safe environment to express trauma, listening circles help spread information and awareness of vital emotional support services and positive coping strategies for survivors. The Vuslat Foundation ultimately hopes to train survivors on becoming facilitators of listening circles themselves, thereby organically expanding the provision to the community. Considering that the services of foreign-based psychologists in Türkiye will be temporary, resilient locals will be essential in leading long-term healing efforts.

The initiatives of civil society organisations such as the Maya Foundation, Hayata Destek, and the Vuslat Foundation recognise that rebuilding communities after disasters is a broad-based, long-term process. As Türkiye recovers, its people will need space and time to heal. Holistic aid methods that incorporate psychosocial support, such as play areas for children and listening circles for survivors, will be a crucial part of this journey.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are the personal views of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Devdiscourse and Devdiscourse does not claim any responsibility for the same.)

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