After decades of widespread use of tranquilizers and antidepressants, readily prescribed by doctors, Serbians have discovered the wonders of couch therapy.
“A Benjo a day takes your troubles away,” said a tongue-in-cheek Belgrade graffiti featuring the slang name of a popular antidepressant in the 1990s.
It became a mantra for many trying to escape the gloomy everyday life under the repressive rule of late Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic.
The wars that led to the bloody dissolution of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, the failing economy with dozens of people losing jobs every day, deteriorating living standards and international isolation pushed many to seek help in the form of a “magic pill.”
“I simply could not force myself to get out of bed. Just a glance at the news and everything was falling apart, but with tranquilizers a couple of times a day, everything became bearable,” said Darja Tosic, a 52-year-old mother of two.
It was easy to get the pills legally: They were cheap and a regular family doctor could write a prescription, she said.
Health controls were also more lenient with loose regulations on many drugs imported from China, India and Russia that were sold freely, so popping pills was easy.
However, a regime change a decade ago brought new methods into what has traditionally been a conservative, macho society where discussing emotions was not encouraged.
Tosic is one of many who has since opted for help from a trained psychotherapist, a process she called a “revelation.”
“I have other problems now and I still need help, but I have realized that uncontrolled absorption of pills is not a solution,” said Tosic, who recently launched her own catering service after a year of therapy sessions.
“I’ve learnt to deal with the things that bother me, not to close my eyes and enjoy a mindless daze,” she said.
While psychotherapy is not new in Serbia — the first psychologists set up shop in the 1950s — it is only recently that the stigma attached to it has lifted.
“It has become more common to talk about psychological issues, anxieties, depressions and stress-related disorders. People seek help more often,” therapist Kaja Damnjanovic said.
It is not known how many trained therapists work in Serbia as the current legislation does not require them to register and the title is not protected.
However, therapists interviewed said business is now booming, with some saying they have doubled the number of their patients in the last six months.
“If I could find the time, I would have been able to see six to eight clients a day, but it would be unprofessional,” Jelena Miric said.
A study published by Serbia’s Public Health Institute in 2009 demonstrated the trend. It was conducted to assess the effects of the 78-day NATO bombing campaign on Serbia in 1999, which ended Milosevic’s campaign against ethnic Albanian separatists in Kosovo.
The raids were punishing for many ordinary Serbs, who were forced to spend days in underground shelters, daring only to go out when sirens sounded the end of the attacks — sometimes several a day.
Findings showed that in the 10-year period to 2009, the number of Serbs seeking psychological or psychiatric help had increased by 13 percent, meaning that by 2009, nearly a quarter of the country’s 7.5 million population had turned to consulting professionals.
“Years of crisis in our country with numerous acute and chronic stressors have adversely affected the mental health of the population,” the 2009 study said. “The absolute number of persons with depressive, stress-related and psychosomatic disorders is on the rise.”
Like many therapists, Miric charges about 20 to 30 euros (US$28 to US$42) for an hour-long session, a considerable amount in a country where the average salary is about 350 euros a month.
Damnjanovic, a psychologist by training, said her clients are mostly “ordinary people, students and those who might belong to a middle class.”
Many of those turning to therapy are still trying to adapt to the switch from socialism to a tough free market economy that demands assertiveness and competitiveness.
Damnjanovic also pointed to the increased number of people believed to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder following the brutal 1990s wars in the region.
A taboo subject just a decade ago, post-traumatic stress disorder has gotten attention as the country increasingly questions its role in the Balkan wars, where ethnic cleansing campaigns gave rise to atrocities unseen in Europe since World War II.
Some of this examination might have been prompted by the high-profile arrests of ex-Bosnian Serb army chief Ratko Mladic last month and former Bosnian Serb leader and psychiatrist Radovan Karadzic in 2008, both after years on the run — and widespread speculation EU-hopeful Belgrade knew their whereabouts all along.
The two men are charged with genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.
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