New hope for healing trauma of torture survivors in Turkey

For decades Turkish people have lived with the threat of repression. Torture, forced abductions, extrajudicial killings, extended detentions and imprisonment are all widespread. It is estimated, for example, that 650,000 people – 1 in 54 – were tortured during and after the 1980 Turkish military coup. According to the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (HRFT), the physical and psychological effects of trauma can persist for decades, and are part of the social psyche that people living in Turkey grapple with today.

HRFT, an SRT grantee, was founded in 1990 by 32 human rights defenders, in collaboration with the Human Rights Association and the Turkish Medical Association. HRFT documents and investigates torture, and played an important role in creating the “UN Manual on the Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment.” It has gone on to train thousands of health professionals from all over the world on this manual, known as the Istanbul Protocol.

The organisation also provides therapy and rehabilitation services. As of 2021, they have provided free physical and psychological treatment to more than 19,000 torture survivors and their relatives. They do this through four treatment and rehabilitation centres in Ankara, Diyarbakir, Istanbul and Izmir, and expand their geographical reach through reference centres in Cizre and Van and a mobile health service. Professionals trained in medicine, psychiatry, psychotherapy and social work provide treatment under the coordination of the HRFT, including in their own private offices. Many survivors avoid visiting public institutions for care, due to their experience with state or related forces in the past.

Several years ago, HRFT began to explore psychoanalytic psychotherapy to treat survivors who were experiencing entrenched trauma. By addressing the unconscious mind, this intensive model of treatment can be a good option for patients with deep-seated trauma. However, it can be prohibitively expensive for many survivors. In 2011, together with a group of psychoanalysts, HRFT founded the Psychoanalytical Psychotherapy Program to offer this model of therapy for free, mainly in its Istanbul Centre. Each week, an average of 60 to 70 survivors and some family members are seen by psychoanalysts and psychotherapists in their private offices in Istanbul for weekly or twice-weekly treatment.

A forthcoming study of the programme shows that psychoanalytical therapy has been effective for many patients, with clinical effects observed from the third month of therapy and further benefits after six months of treatment. Quantitative data in the form of clinical evaluations was gathered from nearly one hundred patients, most of whom were diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Interest in using the psychoanalytical approach in such cases has grown as a result of the programme. “We are often invited to train human rights and professional organisations throughout Turkey who are interested in learning about and applying our psychoanalytical working model,” said HRFT’s programme director. “In a field where prescription drugs are often etinthe only treatment option, our work has helped attract attention and support for long-term and in-depth psychotherapy and psychoanalysis.”

In 2019, the programme won the International Psychoanalytical Association’s “IPA in the Community Awards (Humanitarian Organisations)” award for its work in treating survivors of severe human rights violations and torture.

Return to grantee stories