Tuesday, April 27, 2010

"Southeast Anatolia Syndrome" Warrants Concern

In the wake of the attacks on Ahmet Turk and Taner Yildiz, Today's Zaman's Ayse Karabat recently took a look at PTSD as a social problem plaguing young men returning from military service in the heavily Kurdish southeast. Some mental health specialists have used the term "Southeast Anatolia Syndrome." From Karabat:
According to experts, forming support groups and legitimizing comments supporting the attack comes as no surprise; such a situation cannot be explained only by the outburst and madness of a young man. The main reason behind it is deeper, they say, adding that a social trauma has been affecting the country for many years.

Individual and Social Mental Health Association Chairman Selçuk Candansayar, a psychiatrist, underlined that over the past few decades -- ever since the first armed PKK attack -- the society has internalized violence as a method of deflecting anger. “Over the last 25 years, whoever was in power legitimized the use of violence as a way of showing anger. During all these years many wrong messages have been given to the society. One of those messages was ‘If you are really angry, you can resort to violence.’ Such a massage also leads to further violence,” Professor Candansayar told Sunday’s Zaman.

He added that presenting Çelik’s attack as an individual act will serve the interests of groups that benefit from violence. “Such a situation gives several messages, including that attacks draw attention and that it is legitimate to continue with them, and that it is normal to show one’s reaction through violence. Furthermore, it helps groups that make use of violence recruit new members,” he says.

Metin Bakkalcı from the Turkish Human Rights Foundation (TİHV) also points to the 25-year-long trauma resulting from the Kurdish problem, trauma that has turned into a phenomenon that is being transferred from one generation to the next. According to him, calculating only the number of soldiers who served in southeastern and eastern Anatolia is enough to get an idea of the scope of the trauma facing society.

“Just think, approximately 200,000 soldiers serve in areas involving armed conflict every year. This means there are at least 3 million people who have been directly affected by the situation. If you consider their families, the number is even bigger,” Bakkalcı said.

Bakkalcı has a point. A very rare study conducted in 1995 found that many young men in Turkey who completed tours of duty in the Southeast during their compulsory military service might have been afflicted with the Southeastern Anatolia Syndrome. The report notes that 25 percent of soldiers surveyed who are suspected of having the syndrome suffer from antisocial personality disorder in addition to other problems such as acute depression, schizophrenia, agoraphobia, social phobias, panic disorders and general anxiety.

One of the authors, Mehmet Sungur, in a previous interview with Sunday’s Zaman said not much progress has been made on the issue since a report titled “Common Features of [Posttraumatic Stress Disorder] PTSD Cases Amongst a Group of Military Staff Referred from the Southeast Region of Turkey” was first published in the Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy in 1995.

The Southeastern Anatolia Syndrome, like the Vietnam Syndrome, is in fact PTSD and is characterized by the typical psychological symptoms that emerge following a distressing event that is outside the range of usual human experience. Soldiers in southeastern Anatolia frequently encounter life-threatening conditions due to their clashes with the PKK.

Sezgin Tanrıkulu, a former chairman of the Diyarbakır Bar Association, pointed out that not only soldiers who served in predominantly Kurdish areas and their families but also many Kurds are victims of various traumas. He said 4,000 villages were evacuated, with those displaced having to cope with difficult living conditions in the cities. There were 17,000 extra-judicial killings whose perpetrators have yet to be found in addition to a couple of thousand people who remain missing.

“This trauma is really worrying because it is polarizing the society. This polarization did not materialize overnight but took many years to form. Anger and outrage have turned into violence as a method of expressing one’s self,” Tanrıkulu told Sunday’s Zaman.

He says even if a magical solution is found today, it will take many years to overcome the trauma. And in any case, he adds, effective programs to deal with the matter will have to be instituted.

Bakkalcı agrees, adding that implementing legal, social and economic measures to solve the Kurdish problem will not be sufficient. “Programs must be put in place to find a real solution to these social problems. And these programs should be developed not only by mental health workers but through a multidisciplinary approach,” Bakkalcı said, adding that the TİHV is working on such projects and will try to address problems faced by soldiers suffering from Southeastern Anatolia Syndrome, relatives of missing persons and families of those killed extra-judicially.

Candansayar also thinks society needs programs to overcome these traumas but notes that problems in traumatized societies can only be solved through the common efforts of both the groups that are angry and those that they are angry with. “Leaders should be able to show the society that violence is not the solution because they were the ones who made the public think violence was legitimate in the first place,” he said.
No doubt another obstacle to conflict resolution efforts . . .

In a case earlier this year, stories about the syndrome appeared in the Turkish press following the murder of a Kurdish man in an Ankara bar. The assailant was a police officer who allegedly suffered from psychological trauma following military service in the southeast.

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