“Lives of Others” and ours
The Lives of Others is a movie made in Germany back in 2006. The main character is a theatre director in East Germany. When a good friend of his commits suicide, he decides to write on the issue of suicide rates in the GDR. It then becomes a thrilling spy movie and depicts how oppressive regimes can easily become big brothers, monitoring each move of their citizens.
Suicide rates are indeed part of important public health data for normal, e.g. democratic governments. But in cases of governments such as East Germany, it can become important data to hide or manipulate. Suicide rates can point to a series of issues. Among many others, macro level life (dis)satisfaction, increased psychological problems, problems of access to mental health services, unemployment, or oppression of certain groups can be mentioned. Comparing changes in numbers annually, or segregating them by location, age group, gender or educational level can indicate different aspects of major problems in society. In the first place, the reason to collect this type of data must be to analyze and develop solutions in line with relevant public offices. Then share it with the public, and also international organizations like the WHO should be done for reasons of transparency and democracy. It also allows citizens to participate in public health-related debates and the development of policies as the provision of solutions. For a government claiming to be democratic and solving social problems, suicide statistics should be among the most useful statistics to understand society.
It is therefore not a surprise that suicide statistics are not published since 2019 in Turkey. Once a separate statistical report is published annually by the Turkish Statistics Office, TUIK, now there is no trace of such data. As in the case of previous reports, the last report from 2019[i] is also detailed enough to write a series of articles. So, I cannot stop asking why. Why did the Turkish government decide not to publish it?
Compared to other OECD countries, Turkey ranks among the lowest third in 2019. Besides spiritual and/or social explanations, the main difference comes from data collection. Simply put, not all suicides are registered as suicides in Turkey. So, low numbers are not due to extraordinary public policies, family structure, and/or religion. Since the data is not published in Turkey, it cannot even be compared with others.
According to 2019 data available from Turkey, men have a suicide rate that is three times higher compared to women. Among them, women with primary school degrees and men with high-school degrees have the highest suicide numbers compared to other educational levels. Based on provincial suicide rates, Aydın, Ardahan, and Denizli have the highest suicide rates compared to other cities in Turkey. Among all age groups, 75+ years old age group suicide rates are the highest. So, what happened to these numbers and rates in the last two years? Or what is happening in prisons? Or in the army? Since data is collected and published since 2009, is there data for suicides among asylum seekers and refugees? We have no clue about the answers to these questions. Not that no one has. I strongly believe the data is collected. It is simply not shared with the public.
It is not the data itself that matters. It is the action of the responsible public offices based on this data that matters. Based on the data we can measure their success or failure. Besides issues needing further research, such as why more men are committing suicide than women, there are areas where simple numbers are pointing to obvious problems. Most probably the governors and provincial directors of health in cities like Aydin, Ardahan, and Denizli should work with other agencies to understand why they are ranking highest among the 81 provinces and act. It is a scary fact to observe that the 75+ age group has the highest suicide rate since the beginning of data collection, in 2009. Although it is the case for almost all countries in the world, we can still ask relevant offices, such as the Ministry of Family and Social Policies, what measures relevant departments have taken to reduce the suicide rate among this age group. Since this is a public health issue, what are the programs run by the public health department of the Ministry of Health? How many people are hired? And eventually how much public money is spent to prevent these suicides?
There may be two simple explanations for why statistics are not published. Either they are not capable of doing what they used to do, or simply they do not want to share. I do not believe that the Turkish government could force a whole international community to call the country Türkiye, but could not even publish its suicide rates. Hence, I would not be surprised if TUIK was asked not to publish them. The mere reason that I can think why such data is no longer available is the increase of numbers in all genders and age groups. Unfortunately, Turkey has not become a heaven on earth in the last two years. On the contrary, it has become quite uncanny for its citizens.
There is a long list of negative changes that can be mentioned from social to economic areas. Unemployment and inflation are the most important and deteriorating problems of people in Turkey. There is scientific proof of a correlation between unemployment and suicide rates. For a 1% increase in unemployment, suicide rates increase by 0,79%. But according to the Turkish Statistics Office unemployment rates are decreasing in Turkey, from 13,7% in 2019 to 11,4% for the 2nd quarter of 2022. So, one can even argue that the suicide rates decreased in Turkey.
In addition to the increase in suicides, I would also argue that the number of deaths caused by COVID was a playground for the Turkish government for the last two years. The government and its minister of health were mocked many times for inconsistencies in numbers. If they publish death statistics, it may allow people to analyze it for COVID-related deaths as well. Under such circumstances, not publishing numbers is the best solution for a government that does not care at all about transparency and accountability.
Until the official numbers are shared with the public, anyone can argue anything. Therefore, I will strongly argue that suicide rates have increased in Turkey. Many vulnerable groups are economically and politically affected by the governmental decisions of the last two years. Suicide is a public health issue. But it is also a political issue that cannot be left in the hands of politicians.
What we need is not another government with rhetorical discourses of conservatism and nationalism but one which will improve data collection for suicides, face the blatant reality of statistics, and mobilize public resources to improve public health.
When the regime changes in GDR, the characters of the movie, Lives of Others, find themselves under quite different conditions compared to the beginning. It seems like what can be called “the Türkiye movie” has become quite a predictable farce. The economic crisis, lack of justice, and the inability of the opposition parties to oppose, … If and when this farce will be over, we will probably observe drastic changes in the characters of our movie.
*Yigit Aksakoglu is a civil society activist and NGO professional from Turkey. He has experience in developing and implementing advocacy strategies for rights-based issues and organizations. He contributed to the scaling up of public policy interventions targeting vulnerable populations, in partnership with NGOs, universities, companies and municipalities.
Yiğit completed his undergraduate degree at Yıldız Technical University’s Civil Engineering Faculty. He received his MSc degree in NGO Management from the London School of Economics. He then received a postgraduate degree in International Cooperation and Development at Barcelona University.