Mental Health Woes Grip Baghdad

by Rajashri on Oct 13 2008 3:47 PM

The mentally ill people in Baghdad remain neglected despite promises by the US to provide adequate facilities for their care.

"They originally said they would help us, but they do no more than to search for rebels," said Sarsan Raghad, a doctor at Al-Rashad, Iraq's only psychiatric hospital.

"They even arrested our director for two months, saying that a mentally disabled suicide bomber was treated here. It was wrong, and he was released," Raghad said.

The Al-Rashad hospital sits on a huge dusty plain in northeast Baghdad, between two of the war-torn city's chaotic urban slums that in early 2008 saw fierce street battles between Shiite militias and US forces.

US forces have repeatedly promised help, but have merely raided the hospital amid suspicion that Shiite rebels are hiding here, Raghad said.

In the wake of the 2003 US led invasion, the hospital was looted to such an extent that it closed until the International Red Cross Society refurbished it. "Everything had been destroyed, removed, furniture, medical equipment, all patients had fled," the 44 year old doctor recalled.

Now with 1,300 beds, the clean hospital once more treats the nation's most critically ill.

Samira is one of the patients who came to the hospital after suffering under Saddam's regime.

Wearing a black and orange dress, she bubbles with joy as she walks along the main asphalt path stretching through the small pavilions that lead to the main hospital buildings.

"Doctor where were you? I'm so happy to see you, thank you very much, yes, thank you," Samira called out as she happened across doctor Raghad.

The doctor smiled gently and explained that 10 years ago Samira, who is in her fifties, was a journalist before she fell foul of Saddam.

"One day she wrote an article against the regime of Saddam Hussein. She was arrested, tortured. Since then she has been sick although she has stabilised in the last four years."

The majority of patients confined at Al-Rashad are stricken with hereditary schizophrenia or some other mental illness. "We treat the most serious cases," Raghad said.

These people's problems have no apparent cause and some recover fully, but even those who feel well again do not necessarily leave the hospital.

According to Raghad, 40 percent of patients could be released, but their families do not want them anymore.

"It's like a graveyard here. You're here because you can't go anywhere else," he said, adding: "Sixty to 70 percent of patients have been interned for over five years."

Outside, under the shadow of a palm tree near a pile of discarded metal medical equipment, Raghad said his hospital manages a some part of Iraq's ocean of traumas.

"In every country statistics show that you have at least one percent of the population (who are) schizophrenic. Iraq has 25 million people, so that gives us 250,000."

"But there are no statistics, and anyway we don't see them. Because in our Iraqi culture, a man has to be a man, and if he shows depression, it will only disgrace him."

Only two to three percent of patients are labelled "dangerous" and confined to a high security area where there are "all kinds of criminals," he adds.

Inside the hospital, at a huge clean and well-kept room where patients go to paint, are dozens of colourful portraits.

One image shows handcuffed hands reaching desperately skyward, in another a broken heart is wrapped in metal chains. Another shows a woman, her hair the colours of the rainbow.

Hagop Armin, a skinny man with an angular face crowned with a mop of dishevelled white hair and dressed in a black tracksuit, is the creator of a rose-orange canvass containing a stool and an ancient Middle Eastern guitar or eud.

The former engineer has an apparent talent for languages and was educated in the United States before illness got the better of him.

"I was born in 1957," he repeated five times in English, his eyes staring fixedly as he sat with a red accordion, his sick and hesitant fingers betraying an air of melancholy that he said has affected him since he was seven years old.

Then, suddenly switching to French, Hagop calls out: "How you going? I'm good! My love! I love you!" The nurses gently rejected him.

As the doctor enters the women's quarters, a half dozen patients in nightshirts surround Raghad. They are skinny and many are made-up grotesquely as they smile enticingly call out: "Return." Meaning they want to go home.

But it is not that simple.