Thursday, 21 October 2010

ON MY SOAPBOX DAY! Post 2 Mental Health...changing attitudes

There's not much support in Turkey for people with mental health problems or learning disabilities.  This was the field I worked in before I moved to Turkey and it's something I feel passionately about.

I have mentioned briefly about the woman who lives in the house just below us.  She has learning disabilities as far as I can establish...although the Turks will just attach the label "she has a mental problem".  People in the village are kind, they give things to this woman and her husband.  When she was sick last year, two neighbours went in and washed her thoroughly, with hot water that we provided.

When my FIL was here recently we had a discussion about this woman and mental health/learning disabilities in general.  He has a typical Turkish attitude.  He is a good muslim, he gives to those less fortunate than him, and just assumes that people like this woman, don't actually understand anything, so everyone must help.  I did try to explain that just just giving things..although kind, doesn't actually achieve much in enabling this woman to have the best possible life that she can.  That it would be better for people to spend time teaching her how to wash herself and her clothes, how to shop for food, how to cook, how to keep her house and garden clean.   FIL's response was that she doesn't understand because she has a mental problem.

That's rubbish...I know she understands.  I don't communicate with her as much as others do but I am well aware from her body language and her behaviour, that she understands more than people give her credit for.
FIL didn't believe me...even though he knows this is my area of we agreed to disagree.

I found myself having a similar conversation last night with Mr A.   Unfortunately he shares some of his father's opinions on the subject.  But to be fair he did listen to what I had to say.   I tried to explain that it's so important for these people to be treated as human beings, and that we shouldn't just be GIVING and DOING but that we should be ENABLING.  This is the only way that this woman and others like her will ever gain self respect and achieve a better way of life.

At the moment this woman and her husband live in absolute squalor.  They never wash themselves or their clothes. They don't clean their house or garden.  They don't cook.  The rubbish piles up, causing a health hazard to them and others around them...until it reaches a point where a neighbour will just go in and light a bonfire to burn it all.  Their toilet is just a pile of bricks in a semi-circle in their garden where they squat and do their business.  Although to be honest the woman would often just come out of her house and squat in front of it.  No-one has bothered to explain to her that this is not acceptable...until Mr A noticed one day last year.  He told her that it was wrong.  He said that if her husband would build up their "outside toilet"  with more bricks he would give them wood to put on the top to make a roof...which he did.  I've not seen her squat just outside the house she DOES understand!

I would like to do more, but because I'm a foreigner and she is wary of me, she won't listen to me when I try to talk to her.  The only conversation we have is when I walk down the hill and she shouts out "where are you going?"...I tell her...but any attempts at further conversation and she scurries away.

Last night I did feel a bit like I was wasting my time talking to Mr A about what could be done to enable this woman to achieve more.  So imagine my surprise this morning to find him out in the garden talking to her over the wall.   He was telling her how to tidy up and clean her garden.  He was very patient with her and repeated himself many times, but finally she got the message, and has been spending the past hour or so having a good sort out!   A bit later I heard him talking to our neighbour Şevke, and saying wouldn't it be nice if she and some of the other women could take some time to teach the woman how to wash and to cook.  I'm hoping that they will although you can't force people to do something that seems alien to them.

You know how much I love the Turks.  They are kind and generous people...they have good hearts.  They will do anything for anyone.  They just don't have the knowledge or experience to deal effectively with mental health problems or learning disabilities.

It's difficult to change attitudes.  It takes time.  But if we can enable just one person to become independent it has to be worth the effort.


  1. You are so right, Ayak.
    People with learning problems...and mental health problems generally... can be helped to have a better life, but simply because they have these problems they are regarded as being incapable of doing anything for people just give things which is very kind, but it only reinforces the problem.

    Typical of Mr. Ayak, once convinced, to start doing something about it, too!

    Well done you!

  2. Fly: Yes that's exactly it. Mr A has been teaching them how to light and control a bonfire this morning and they are so pleased with themselves. You just wouldn't believe the satisfaction on their faces...brilliant start!

  3. As a teenager, I joined an organization through my high school called YARC, the Youth Association for Retarded Citizens. I'm sure I was too immature emotionally for the experience because I didn't attend more than a few times. Given there was no real supervision over the group, I guess it isn't too shocking that I would be unable to handle the things I saw. I recall being disturbed by so many people grabbing onto me and hugging. And I'd usually leave feeling very depressed by the experience. I don't know maybe it wasn't depression, maybe it was just thinking deeply about difficult ideas. I can say it tended to inoculate me against so much of the "me me me" that eventually overtook my generation.
    Later, when I was desperate for work, I found work in a nursing home. This too was a terribly hard experience in some ways but there are events that happened, and things I witnessed that really truly shaped the way I look at the world. Seeing elderly people, for example, waiting in vain by the front door at Christmas time for their children to come. It was heart breaking because you'd ask yourself, is this acceptable?

    Now, I am not applying for the Mother Theresa Award or anything. But there is one thing I think it really missing from our society, both in Turkey and in the USA where I am from. That's a sense of humility and empathy, the idea of giving back and of thinking less about yourself and more about others. There, but for the grace of God, go I. Today it's "That's not my job" or "What's in it for me?"

    I have always felt that every young person-especially if they wish to apply for any student assistance- should have to spend a year working in some kind of social service under close supervision of qualified social workers. One year can do a lot to change attitudes, I'd think.

  4. It deffo helps to make people independant whatever their disability, just cos u have learning difficulties shouldnt make any difference, we have all disabilities at where I volunteer and each one of them tries to help themselves in whatever way they can. I hope that people do take on board what you have been saying cos it will deffo improve their lives for them and good on hubby for making a start and listening to u xx

  5. Nomad: That's an excellent idea. It also might encourage a bit of humility and empathy in the younger generation.
    Many years ago I did some voluntary work at a youth centre with some pretty unruly teenagers. I got them involved in helping with a playgroup I was setting up and running for kids with learning disabilities. It worked exceptionally well and I saw a completely different side to these teens that would never have imagined.

    Bomb: I know from your volunteering that we are both on the same wavelength. Enabling and empowering people to take control of their lives, regardless of disability is so worthwhile.

  6. It is sad that anyone has to live in such squalor like this lady and her husband without any support from the State. I am pleased to hear that all the neighbours are gradually wanting to help. I think you could well be in charge of this group of people and help to organise something.
    Maggie X

    Nuts in May

  7. A little stone can make a very big ripple. I think you just plopped! Good for you, well done x

  8. Maggie: I'm willing to try.

    Kelloggsville: It's a start.

  9. Oh you are so right! Our little nephew in Turkey is very obviously autistic but his parents/grandparents have no clue. He doesn't go to the doctor for checkups as far as we know and it just breaks my heart that he will never get proper care or therapy for his condition. They just accept him as he is but he could be helped and he could improve and it just breaks my heart that he will never have that chance.


  10. Hi Terri...welcome! You've hit the nail on the head really. This all starts from birth/childhood. A child who is "different" is just accepted as being different. It would seem to be part of Turkish mentality to just accept this. Their culture and religion tells them to give, to help, to do whatever they can for anyone less fortunate than themselves. Of course this is not a bad thing, it's what makes this race so likeable. But they don't seem to grasp the concept of enabling or empowering. It makes me very sad when you tell me about your nephew, because you and I know that he could achieve so much more. It must make you feel quite helpless I'm sure. xxx

  11. this is really a great story Ayak. You might have helped to change her life completely. It is almost like one of those emotional movies in which the poor disabled guy learnd to adjust to the society.

    And this is something i really dont understand: is she married? really? hat were they thinking. more importantly, what her husband thinks now, with a wife who is not capable of doing anything. why did he possibly marry her in the first place?

  12. jedilost: I'm carefully considering how to answer your questions, because I know you are Turkish and I know you sometimes look at things differently to me. But I also know that you have a very caring shows clearly in your blog posts.

    Now from my English perspective, I of course see no reason why this woman shouldn't be married. She would have a more satisfactory married life of course, had she had the right kind of support all her life.

    Her husband is very much older than her...and he is very hard of hearing, and possibly bordering on learning disabilities also.

    You probably know as well as I do that often in remote villages, a man like him, getting older, with no-one to look after him in old age is married off to a woman who would not, for one reason or another, be able to find a husband. As far as I know this was the case. The well meaning people of the village engineered it so that two lonely people ended up together.

    I don't necessarily approve of this. However, had this couple had more support in enabling them to do more for themselves, they may be having a much better quality of life now. But it was just a case of throwing them together and then leaving them to get on with it. This is what saddens me most.

    They do genuinely seem quite fond of each other, so something positive has come out of this match.

  13. i didn't really want to sound like i disapprove the marriage or anything like that, Ayak. or i dont have some rigid social roles in my mind such as women should do the cleaning and cooking and blah blah. but it is more likely that people in your village have that kind of opinions. so if she can't obviously do the things what her husband will most likely expect from her, or worse if she doesnt even know how to go to toilet -whether she doesnt really understand or nobody ever cared to teach her- i really don't know why a man would ever want to marry her. i can think of some reasons, but i just wanted to know the story behind it rather than just assuming.

  14. jedilost: I know you don't have rigid social rules, your blog tells me this clearly. And I didn't mean to sound like I was lecturing. I enjoy our conversations because we can often reach the same conclusion about different topics, sometimes coming from different directions...if you know what I mean?

    I am just guessing really that this man was lonely, and I doubt he had any social skills. Perhaps therefore he had no standards of his own by which to judge this woman? I only know bits of the story because neighbours have told my husband. I don't really know the neighbours well enough to ask them more, even if my Turkish was good enough to do so. Somehow it seems like I would come across as too nosy...I have to recognise the fact that I'm still very much an outsider here. I'm not sure they would want to share such things with me.

  15. if u can pass the language barrier, i am sure they will share everythnig with you.

    and i enjoy our conversations and your blog, too. this is one good side of the internet i like.

  16. jedilost: Yes...likewise...and thanks xx

    I will definitely work on breaking down the language barrier!

  17. Ayak that's a heartwarming post if ever there was one!


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