Turkey’s Mental Health Providers Offer Survivors Free Counseling After Ankara Terror Attack

ANKARA — The twin bombs that detonated Saturday in Ankara, Turkey, loaded with small metal balls to rip through flesh for maximum carnage, were made to terrorize people at a peace rally. And that’s exactly what they did. 

“The blood of other people was sprayed on me,” Murat, a somber 46-year-old Turkish Labour Party member recounted of the blasts he survived unharmed, unlike some of his loved ones. “I just saw blood and pieces of people.”

At least 97 people died and hundreds more were wounded, many critically, in the worst terrorist attack to ever happen on Turkish soil. Now, survivors have to mend their shattered lives and attempt to move on.

But the country’s mental health providers want survivors and other people impacted by the blasts to know that they are not alone in their trauma. Hundreds of volunteers — all trained psychologists, psychiatrists and psychosocial counselors — have stepped up to offer free therapy to anyone who needs it.

Wounded people wait for help at the site of an explosion in Ankara, Turkey, on Oct. 10, 2015.Wounded people wait for help at the site of an explosion in Ankara, Turkey, on Oct. 10, 2015.

Turkey has named the Islamic State militant group as the prime suspect in the Saturday bombings that detonated seconds apart at an anti-war rally largely attended by Kurds, leftists and labor union members.

But many survivors place blame on the government for failing to stop the attack, some even insisting the state carried out the bombings itself. Other Turks blame the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party or Marxist radicals for the bloodshed.

Hours after the violent attack, Dr. Sezai Berber and his colleagues at the Psychiatric Association of Turkey rushed to the morgue in Ankara. Anguished screams pierced the cold night air as volunteers passed out hot soup and blankets to people, many of whom were still in shock.

Berber was there for one reason: to provide emotional support to the hundreds of people huddled in the cold, waiting to claim the bodies of deceased friends and family.

A woman outside of Ankara Numune hospital holds a crumpled sheet of paper. On it are the names of 6 friends wounded in the twin bombings. Five are still missing, one has already died. She breaks down into sobs, holding onto the paper tightly and with hope.

A photo posted by Sophia Jones (@sophiamariejones) on

“Our campaign is long term,” the Ankara psychiatrist explained. “This is the biggest human-made trauma in the history of Turkey. It’s important to support [survivors] to help them come back to life.”

The plan is to rally people from an already existing volunteer network to make home visits, one-on-one counseling and group therapy available to the terrorist attack’s trauma victims over the coming weeks and months. 

Therapists are reaching out to hospitals and funeral homes, and placing notices online and in media outlets, calling for people traumatized by Saturday’s attack to come forward and seek help if they need it.

Turkey’s mental health providers have come together before to provide free, urgent mental health care to large groups of people.

Such volunteer-based initiatives have been ongoing since the 1999 earthquake in Izmit, northwestern Turkey, that killed 17,000 people. More recently, large-scale grief counseling was provided for those affected by the 2014 Soma mine disaster that left 301 coalminers dead. 

Relatives cry during the Oct. 11, 2015, funeral of Korkmaz Tedik, 25, killed in the bombing attacks in Ankara, Turkey, the daRelatives cry during the Oct. 11, 2015, funeral of Korkmaz Tedik, 25, killed in the bombing attacks in Ankara, Turkey, the day before.

“After trauma like this, what you see is people feel like they’re losing their minds,” explained Dr. Asli Carkoglu, Istanbul Chapter president of the Turkish Psychologists Association, one of the main groups organizing trained volunteers. 

Survivors, as well as people who were not necessarily present during the attack but helped victims or dealt with extreme grief afterward, may develop post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental disorders, according to Carkoglu, a psychology professor at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University. 

Symptoms may include insomnia, relationship problems, crying or not being able to cry, and flashbacks. But help is out there for those struggling in the aftermath of Saturday’s carnage. 

“It’s a normal response to trauma,”Carkoglu said. “By telling people it’s part of healing, we help people understand what they’re going through.”

Hazal Arda contributed reporting from Ankara and Istanbul.