US President Barack Obama may have hailed the end of US combat operations in Iraq, but the seven-year war has left an indelible mark on many ordinary people who are still traumatized by the horrific things they experienced.
Whenever he sees a speeding car, Ammar Khalil Sadiq recalls the summer of 2006 when a suicide bomber drove his explosives-laden vehicle into a police patrol a few metres from his Baghdad music shop.
Seconds later Sadiq, 34, found himself lying underneath the shop shelves and shattered glass, the air heavy with smoke, dust and a strong smell of TNT. Ignoring his injuries, he knew he had to get out to check on his brother who was in the street just before the explosion.
“The smell of burnt human flesh and the yells of the wounded are still in my nose and ears,” Sadiq said. “I can’t forget how I walked on pieces of human flesh until I recognized my brother’s dismembered body by the watch which was still on his left wrist.”
The Iraqi authorities have only recently begun to address the mental health issues and psychological scars resulting from three decades of war and social and economic turmoil, said Sabah Karkokli, a spokesman for the Iraqi Health Ministry.
In 2009 the Health Ministry started to roll out a programme of psychological therapy, and train staff to meet the increasing need for such therapy nationwide, Karkokli said. Iraq has opened mental health units in each of its nearly 3,500 hospitals and health centres nationwide, he added.
The country has two psychiatric institutions – in Baghdad’s Al-Rashad and Ibin Rushid hospitals – and six other recently inaugurated trauma centres.
|“We started opening units in each of our health institutions and encouraging doctors to undertake training in psychiatric treatment… We are aiming to create an awareness of mental illness and encourage people to show up whenever they need to,” Karkokli said.
Mental health survey
In March 2009 Iraq released its first and only nationwide mental health survey. Carried out by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Health Ministry, it painted a grim picture.
Of the 4,332 respondents aged 18 and above surveyed, nearly 17 percent had suffered from a mental health disorder in their lifetime, ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder to depression. A higher rate of severe depression and phobias, like fear of leaving the house, was observed among women.
The 102-page report said many of the cases documented related to the period during and after the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. It said nearly 70 percent of those with a mental health disorder said they had considered committing suicide.
It also noted that there were only 437 psychiatric and social workers nationwide in a country of nearly 30 million.
Success story in Basra
After receiving training in the USA on the diagnosis and treatment of trauma cases as part of a cooperation programme with the US Health Department, psychiatrist Aqeel Al-Sabagh and three of his colleagues opened a mental health centre in the southern province of Basra in December 2009.
Initially, demand for the services of was very low due to the stigma associated with mental illness and the lack of awareness among people who usually turn to clerics or quacks for help, al-Sabagh said.
“We started a campaign in the local media to raise awareness about trauma and what the Sarah Centre could offer. We also held symposiums in the province’s universities and distributed leaflets with the help of community leaders,” he told IRIN.
Subsequently the number of people coming to what is Basra’s sole government-run centre has risen. “We are now planning to expand the centre and increase the number of employees to cater for the increasing number of visits.”
Al-Sabagh said most of the cases they received were prisoners during Saddam Hussein’s regime or had been deserters – some with their ears cut off as a punishment – and the survivors of torture, kidnappings, rape and family violence.
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]