Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Economic Crisis Shakes Kazakstan's Macho Culture

Mental health professionals report unprecedented surge of men seeking help.
By Tatiana Em

Vladimir (not his real name) is a 39-year-old market analyst from Almaty.

He has done something seen as unacceptable in Kazak society, something so shameful he has not been able to confide in anyone.

Vladimir secretly turned to a therapist to seek help for depression.

“Recently I was made redundant from my work,” he explained. “I searched really hard for a new job, but had no success. My wife and I began selling pies at a local bazaar to make some money.”

With a mortgage to pay, he had little choice. But the loss of status had hit him hard, Vladimir explained.

“I suffered a lot from the fact that I used to work in an office, and now I sold stuff at the bazaar,” he continued, adding that he began to feel increasingly irritable and anxious.

“I realised that I couldn’t go on like this, but still felt ashamed [to visit a psychologist]. It’s hard to explain, I felt as if I weren’t a man. But then I just went there. I wanted to run away during that first session, but then I calmed down and got used to it. As time went by and I kept being counseled, I felt better.”

Kazakstan’s economic crisis is proving extremely traumatic for many men, under huge social pressure to provide for their families in what remains a heavily patriarchal society.

Mental health professionals in Almaty say that as a result they are experiencing an unprecedented surge in demand from male clients.

“I have been practicing for over ten years and I can say with certainty that the number of men who see me for counseling has grown,” said Irina Kirova, a gestalt therapist.

“While in 2011 I held only two counseling sessions with men for every seven ones with women, today I have 15 sessions with men for every five with women. The number of male clients has tripled within a year.”

Kirova’s male clients were mostly aged 32 to 50 and were under enormous financial pressure, she said.

As it was seen as unacceptable for Kazak men to show emotional pain or vulnerability, most kept their visits secret, even from those closest to them.

“For [Kazak] men, demonstrating weakness is unthinkable,” Kirova explained.

The Kazak economy, heavily dependent on extractive industries, has been struggling in recent years, and Astana switched to a free-floating exchange rate last August in an attempt to boost its fortunes.

However, the results have not been promising. The tenge has fallen 45 per cent against the dollar in the last six months, with savings in the national currency being massively devalued.

According to official figures, unemployment was at 5.1 per cent as of January 2016, but the real figure may be much higher. The social stigma attached to unemployment deters many people from registering with the government, and in any case the benefits paid are so minimal that they are far from enough to survive on.

Kazak real-estate news service reported recently that nearly a quarter of people with mortgages across the country are three months behind with their payments.

Workers in the hydrocarbon industry feel particularly insecure given sweeping new reforms made to liberalise employment regulations.

(See Labour Liberalisation Alarms Kazak Workers).

Although Kazakstan is officially a secular country with legislation ensuring gender equality, Kazak tradition nevertheless dictates that a man is the head of the household and must be the main breadwinner.

For men of working age, the prospect of not being able to provide for their families is enormously stressful, especially during times of economic crisis.

Despite these pressures, most Kazak men remain horrified by the idea of seeking psychological help.

Mikhail, a 42-year-old plumber, said that he preferred to tackle his issues on his own.

“I'm not used to complaining about problems, discussing them with anyone; who cares about your troubles?” he said.

He told IWPR that economic anxiety and family problems often went hand in hand. 

 “Many of my friends go on a [drinking] binge because of their family issues. [Their families] are dissatisfied with their earnings, with the fact that they don’t spend enough time with them and don’t make enough money. As a result of this, they get desperate and find consolation in the bottle,” Mikhail said.

Kairat Omirkhanov, an entrepreneur, also said that recent problems with his business were making him feel more and more depressed.

“I catch myself thinking that at my age it would be hard to start from scratch,” the father-of-three said. “These dollar fluctuations and expenditure cuts make it especially difficult to provide for [my] family.

“But going to a crisis centre?” he continued. “I don’t know, how could they help out there? Psychological counseling? I would rather make an appointment with a therapist privately and share my problems there, though I am not going to do that either because how could a stranger’s advice be of any help to me? And if people find out that I went to a psychologist, they will ridicule me.”

Kirova said that this was a dangerous attitude. For the most part, talking therapies had proved successful for her patients.

“I had a case when a man was on the verge of suicide and coming to a counselor was his last hope; but it all turned out well. After ten counseling sessions he was able to pull himself together,” she noted.

However, there is currently no dedicated psychological provision for men in Kazakstan.

Seven years ago, Kazakstan’s a men’s crisis centre was opened in Almaty by the Er Azamat Public Association. There are some 40 crisis centres for women operating across the country, but this was the first-ever one focused specifically on men.

It offered psychological services as well as a hotline for those in need of emergency help.

But the centre did not last long. The project closed down a year later after only 200 men contacted it for assistance.

Its founders said that the problem was the Kazak mentality that keeps men from complaining.

Zulfiya Baysakova, chairwoman of Kazakstan’s crisis centres union, said her research indicated men asked for help for three main reasons.

One group were those suffering severe family difficulties, while others were seeking help to save their marriages. Another group were single fathers seeking legal advice. According to the latest available figures, there are 70,000 single fathers in Kazakstan.

“Most regrettably, in Kazakstan the idea of a crisis centre for men did not take root. Our men are embarrassed to talk about problems. While for a [Kazak] woman the problem is avoiding being abandoned by her husband, for a man the problem is how to support his family,” Baysakova said.

For his part Vladimir is happy he chose to talk to someone, although he still feels ashamed of his choice.

“I visited a psychologist when I realised I couldn’t go on without professional help,” Vladimir said, adding, “My wife and children still don’t know. I don’t want to tell them.”

Tatiana Em is an Almaty-based journalist.

This publication was produced under IWPR project Strengthening Capacities, Bridging Divides in Central Asia, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

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