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Fighting Depression on Social Media: Turkish-German Science Communication

Stiftung Charité has been expanding its newest research area, Open Life Science, since 2022. Our ‘science x media tandem program’ is the first funding opportunity to allow researchers and media professionals to join forces to work on pioneering ideas to improve science communication. The first cohort of teams to win over the selection committee and the board of trustees at Stiftung Charité began making their projects a reality last summer. Those select few include the professor of intercultural psychiatry Meryam Schouler-Ocak and the TV journalist Dilek Üsük, who has worked for channels including RBB and ZDF. Each are renowned within their respective fields – and within Berlin’s Turkish-German community. This makes them well qualified to enter into dialogue with the community on social media and in the city as part of their project to raise awareness about depression, one of the most common forms of mental illness among people with Turkish heritage in Germany. 

”Anlat!“ is both a command and an invitation, meaning: “Tell us!” in Turkish. It is also the name that Prof. Meryam Schouler-Ocak and journalist Dilek Üsük chose – after much consideration and brainstorming – for their new Instagram and YouTube collections. These videos are designed to bring their science-based mental health tips to the general public as part of their science x media tandem project. They met with me and Marike de Vries, our trainee at Stiftung Charité, to tell us all about it. Seated around the table in Schouler-Ocak’s central Berlin office in the Psychiatric University Clinic of the Charité at St. Hedwig Hospital, we first took a moment to relax over a cup of coffee. Schouler-Ocak kicked off our discussion by telling us that the word Anlat was chosen because it really grabs your attention. “On the one hand,” Üsük adds, “we wanted to share Meryam’s expertise on psychiatric illness, especially depression and the impact that it can have. And on the other hand, Anlat is a call to action to patients and social media consumers. We want them to tell us how they are doing, so we needed the name of our social media channels to reflect both these dimensions.“

On both Instagram and YouTube, Anlat is followed by the subtitle: “Psikoloji zamanı” meaning “time for psychology” or “time for the mind”. For Schouler-Ocak, it was important that the term “psychology” should appear somewhere as it is a key term that people associate with mental health and illness. It was also important to use everyday language to avoid sounding too scientific or clinical. The tandem project uses culturally sensitive videos featuring explanations and practical exercises in Turkish to reach people with Turkish heritage in Germany, a demographic considered both vulnerable and difficult to reach. Even today, this group continues to experience significant disadvantage in the German healthcare system and is also at a considerably increased risk of mental illness. Depression is especially commonplace and can even contribute to physical illness like heart disease or chronic back pain. Schouler-Ocak cites some shocking figures: whereas 43% of the general population in Germany experiences mental illness at some point in their lifetime, researchers estimate that it is almost twice as prevalent among those with Turkish heritage, of whom 79% will experience mental illness during their lives. In Turkey, meanwhile, the rate sits at around 17%. This stark discrepancy is clearly connected to experiences of migration and life in Germany. Those with Turkish heritage are subject to particular risk and stress factors like lower educational attainment compared to the rest of the population, as well as higher rates of unemployment, structural discrimination and social exclusion.

Meryam Schouler-Ocak

Funding program
science x media tandem program

Funding period
2023 to 2024

Intercultural Migration and Care Research, Social Psychiatry

Project title
In Dialogue – Mental Health and Science on Social Media

Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin


Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany

Habilitation: “Psychiatric and Psychotherapeutic Healthcare for Patients with a Migration Background”

2010 – present
Head Senior Physician of the outpatient clinic at the Psychiatric University Clinic of the Charité at St. Hedwig Hospital

2005 – present
Head of the Berlin Alliance against Depression under the patronage of Prof. Dr. Rita Süssmuth

With their science x media tandem project, Schouler-Ocak and Üsük aimed to address this worryingly high rate of depression and associated illnesses which limit quality of life and productivity. By combining their respective scientific and media expertise, they wanted to help lower the barriers to accessing adequate healthcare for the Turkish-German community. As a media expert, it was clear to Üsük from the start that this should take place predominantly via social media: “That’s where everyone spends their time, in my experience at least! My mother is always on Instagram.” Üsük’s anecdotal experience aligns with recent studies; people considered to belong to hard-to-reach groups do indeed turn to social media far more than traditional news sources. According to Statista, the German statistics portal, YouTube, Facebook and Instagram are the most popular social networks in Germany and all three count among the top ten most-visited websites in Germany. “These days you can no longer reach people with newspapers and radio,” Schouler-Ocak observes.

The project features explanatory videos in which Üsük interviews Schouler-Ocak about the causes, symptoms and particular life stages when someone might experience depression (e.g. postpartum depression, depression in old age, and levels among men compared to women). These videos also cover the different treatment options and outlooks and clarify key concepts. But the project’s holistic view also focuses on the connection between psychological wellbeing, sport and nutrition, creating the perfect opportunity to make exercise videos based on the latest scientific findings from sports medicine and physiotherapy.

Schouler-Ocak: “Even younger people in the community find it hard to follow a balanced diet. Being overweight is a real issue. As with depression, we know that people affected by this tend to move less and withdraw physically. That’s how we came up with the idea of integrating exercise into our videos. At the end of each info clip, we say: ‘Moving is good for you and your body. It’s time to join in!’ followed by an exercise. I think we managed to combine content with a call to move really well.” Üsük also appears in the videos and emphasizes how accessible the exercises are: “Of course, it would be great if we could get people out of the house, but we’re still happy if we can get them to move a little while sitting in front of a screen. We’re certainly not talking endurance sports here, but a short clip that you can dance along with is still pretty good.” The duo developed these exercises with the movement therapist Dr. Gerrit Hain to make them as realistic and achievable as possible. “Sometimes the videos might call for tennis balls or a hand towel as props,” Üsük explains. “And Gerrit intentionally included some humorous moments to make the viewer feel more relaxed and open to giving it a go without worrying about how it looks.” Schouler-Ocak agrees: “The squats are a great example of this. He modified them by encouraging the viewer to use a stool as extra support if need be – sit down on the stool, stand up, and so on!”

Üsük tells us which video is her favorite and why: “I feel that the one about medication side effects is especially important. So many people worry about the potential side effects of anti-depressants, and this sometimes stops them from getting what they need. There is a lot of misinformation circulating on social media and having reliable information at your fingertips can enable you to make a more informed decision about whether to take anti-depressants – while you might also benefit from talking therapy.”

The expert duo’s enthusiasm about what they have already achieved together is infectious. They both mention plenty of revelatory moments and lessons learned. Schouler-Ocak tells us that she found filming the videos incredibly time-consuming and resource-intensive (Üsük gives a knowing smile). She recalls bringing along a whole suitcase packed with clothes so that she would have the right outfit for every scene and not look the same in all the videos. The whole filming experience – including seeing herself on screen for the first time – was definitely a case of learning by doing: “At first I thought, oh God, how will we manage with all this text? But in the moment it felt seamless, we were so in harmony with each other – at least until I saw the first video and thought, why on earth am I slouching like that?! No one told me that I could move about a bit, look a little more animated.” But – as Üsük can confirm – the filming became easier over time and she soon started to look more natural in front of the camera.

Schouler-Ocak admits with a laugh that she would probably not switch careers for a job in the media, despite finding the whole process led by Üsük and the production crew absolutely fascinating. Both emphasize how well the team got along as a whole, despite the unexpected difficulty in finding a bilingual camera team in Berlin. They also reflect on their own relationship to the Turkish language. Schouler-Ocak: “We both speak it really well, albeit with a slight German accent, and while filming we noticed how we would sometimes deviate from the script by dropping in the odd German word – a real case of code switching. Take the German word ‘Termin’ for ‘appointment’. It has long since been absorbed by the Turkish language in Germany.” Üsük gives us a quick demonstration, explaining that Termin is then pronounced with an emphasis on the first syllable and a rolling R: “The actual word for appointment in Turkish is ‘randevu’ which is borrowed from French. But Termin is really the best word for those we are targeting with our videos – it comes across as more authentic than the original script.”

The duo felt that it was especially important to use an everyday tone of voice that anyone could understand. Nothing was left to chance – long before the first day of filming, they worked intensively on scripting what they would say in front of the camera. This was partly to create a sense of coherence – each episode needed to broadly relate to the others and share a narrative thread so that they could function as standalone short social media clips or be combined for television at a later date. The duo did plenty of background research too. Schouler-Ocak: “I compared podcasts and TV reports featuring colleagues and friends in Turkey with our plans and surveyed the German-language media landscape in general. Sometimes I just thought, what are you talking about?! No one will understand you if you use such technical terms. This was an issue that we wanted to tackle with our tandem project, and I think we made a great success of it – not least because of Dilek’s expertise. I think that our social media channels will do well.”

Üsük adds her perspective as a journalist: “I paid particular attention to the examples we provided. We needed to avoid anything superficial and make the topics accessible. Giving explanations is all very well, but these always need to be supported with examples.“ With a laugh, she adds, “it really took me back to working on my master’s dissertation. It was such an intensive process; we were constantly sending the texts back and forth with questions and comments in the margin. But it was actually really interesting to see where we asked each other for clarification. Questions like: What do you mean here? Do you maybe want to say this? Might it not be easier if…? slowly disappeared over time. Even very early on in the writing process, it was clear that we made a great team.”

On the day that we meet, Schouler-Ocak and Üsük can celebrate a project that is very near completion. The videos have been filmed and edited, the posts on Instagram and YouTube scheduled, and there are just a few final things left to do. Schouler-Ocak plans to set up a Charité webpage, which will involve clarifying a couple of practical questions, and a data privacy policy is also needed for the plans to livestream the interactive discussion events which will take place in various different Turkish-German community spaces around Berlin throughout the summer, marking the culmination of this great project. We ask the pair what they want their social media channels to achieve. Üsük replies, “We hope to reach as many people as possible, and that they will be able to take something away from these videos and feel better able to seek out help for themselves and their loved ones. That’s why we hope that our Anlat videos will be shared far and wide and reposted by influencers on YouTube and Instagram.“ Schouler-Ocak adds her final perspective: “This project ought to keep going! So far, we have only covered depression and suicidal thoughts, but what about anxiety disorders and many other forms of mental illness? These issues – and the people affected by them – would benefit from a similar communication strategy. I’m already considering how we could make this a reality too.“

Anlat on Instagram:
Anlat on YouTube: 

Dr. Nina Schmidt
April 2024