The State of Mental Health in Russia: a love-hate relationship4 min read

 In Civil Society, Opinion, Russia
For a long time, people in Russia thought that mental health problems were total nonsense. Instead, standard practice was to invite a close friend, buy some liquor and discuss all their problems, whether they are private or not. In the Russian language there is even a special term for people who are ready to listen to the concerns of friends – “zhiletka dlya slyoz” (literally “vest for tears” or “a shoulder to cry on).

While some people discuss their worries with their closest friends, others advocate for completely ignoring them. For example, my friend’s father once noticed that his son was upset and suggested, “Go and do some physical work. If you work all day, you will forget about depression”. 

In Russia, the often-entrenched understanding of mental health treatment is that many people think that one must be a total “psycho” if they go to see a psychologist. Such a misunderstanding of the whole psychological therapy process is related to the poor overall level of mental health education in the country. People just don’t understand why a physically healthy man or woman would ask for psychological help.

This kind of mindset was very common for a long time. Recently, however, things are starting to change.

Last year, the Moscow Department of Health announced that from 1 March to 31 December 2020, there were 28% more calls to the emergency line for mental health help in Moscow. People complained of fear of getting sick, panic attacks, and suicidal thoughts combined with fear of complications from the COVID-19 virus. Most of the callers were women aged 29-35 and 36-50 (74.9%). 

In Saint-Petersburg, the number of calls to professionals for psychological help increased by 30% compared to 2019. These trends seem to suggest that Russians are slowly starting to become more aware of their mental health, at least in big cities. 

“Two and a half years ago, my mind was full of depressive thoughts and I didn’t even want to live anymore”, my friend Kate told me when I asked her about her experience of getting counseling.

“After analyzing the problem with a psychologist, I managed to understand that it was not as big as it seemed, to identify the cause and, most importantly, to understand that my feelings are a completely normal reaction to the current abnormal and toxic circumstances and relationships. This helped me a lot.”

Kate signed up for a service that helped her find an affordable therapist; another perk of psychotherapy becoming increasingly popular in Russia is that prices are getting lower and more people can afford to get professional help. Some companies even offer their employees the opportunity to meet with a therapist for free.

Of course, as with many industries, the pandemic has had other effects on the market for mental health help. While the country was on lockdown, people were not able to invite their friends over to discuss their problems, and many began to look elsewhere for help. People started to look for the answers to their questions on the Internet, which brought some of them to start working with psychotherapists.

While there were already a lot of books and movies about psychotherapy in Russian, now, television series are also starting to show up. For example, the television series Trigger and Psycho show (sometimes in an exaggerated way) how professionals work and how helpful therapy can be. 

Many influencers on social media openly discuss their experience with psychologists, and how they have often helped them understand themselves and others. In what is a rapidly growing medium today, many podcasts about mental health are also gaining popularity.

Anna Provornaya is the host of the Emotionally Intelligent podcast, which deals with self-awareness through the eyes of a psychologist. “On the one hand, there are more sources of information (e.g., all sorts of checklists for choosing a therapist, articles on therapeutic approaches, and so on),” she says. “On the other hand, and this is no less important, therapists are real people who really want to help other people, not just ‘doctors’. Psychologists on YouTube, Instagram, Telegram channels, etc. Thanks to this, the feeling that the psychologist/psychotherapist is someone harsh and mysterious on the couch is gradually disappearing. Listeners of my podcast often write to me and say that they have decided to go to therapy. First, because they understand that therapy is not some shamanic dance with tambourines around childhood traumas; and second, because psychologists are not robotic question machines, but people with whom there is a trusting, warm contact”.

Over time, more and more Russians are opening up to acknowledging their mental health. In normal times, let alone during a pandemic, it is very hard to think of a bright future or have ambitious plans when you feel burnt out or depressed. For this reason, one can only hope this trend continues.

Featured image: Here comes the sun / Amanda Sonesson
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