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Stress Corroding Mental Health of Iraqis

by Hannah Punitha on September 29, 2007 at 7:48 PM
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Stress Corroding Mental Health of Iraqis

He lost two sons to car bombs. She lost her husband to a death squad. Both are depressed, weepy, anxious, filled with rage and in denial. The mental scars of the war in Iraq run deep and jagged.

Compounding the problem, says Dr. Shalan al-Abbudi, director of Baghdad's Ibn-Rushd psychiatric hospital, is the flight from the country of psychiatrists -- those best equipped to help shell-shocked Iraqis deal with their mental demons.


"A year ago I had 14 psychiatrists, today I have four. They are all leaving Iraq," Abbudi told AFP in his small office in the hospital, crowded daily with outpatients desperate for relief from images of horror that haunt them often in the day, always at night.

He and his ever diminishing team make sure every person who turns up at his hospital in Baghdad's central Karrada district gets help.

"We get 80 to 100 patients a day," said the doctor, as the queue outside his door grew ever longer -- many women, fewer men, a handful of children.

"When they arrive here, they are really desperate. They have first been to their local imams and spiritual guides, some even to charlatans. They come here as a last resort," said the doctor.

All are suffering from at least one of the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as anxiety, depression, irritability, anger, loss of appetite, inability to sleep.

Shaimaa Jabbar, who was woken up early one miserably cold morning in January to be told that her husband of eight months had been gunned down in the street, said she still cries a lot, has difficulty sleeping, is often angry and, worst of all for the devout Muslim, uncontrollably blasphemous.

She still can't accept that her husband is dead, despite having seen his bullet-torn body slumped lifelessly in the street near their home in Baghdad's northeastern, mainly Shiite Ur neighbourhood soon after he was killed.

"I see his image before me all the time. I keep thinking he is alive," said the 24-year-old student teacher, dressed in an all-covering black abaya.

"I also talk to myself a lot," added Jabbar, bursting into sudden low laughter that was hysterical rather than happy.

"She is a lot better now, we have been treating her," said Abbudi after the sad-eyed young woman, accompanied by her grey-bearded father, had left his room with a packet of tablets handed her by the doctor.

If Jabbar looks traumatised, Ghazi Alaibi, who lost two sons to two different bombs within the space of four months, looks crushed.

"He is suicidal, we need to watch him all the time," said Abbudi, "We are keeping him in the hospital. He is easily provoked and very aggressive. He is also anti-social and depressed. And besides that, he has physical symptoms, such as constant heartburn and high blood pressure."

Before the US-led invasion of 2003, which toppled Saddam Hussein but unleashed raging sectarian violence, Alaibi had already had his share of trauma -- he was captured as a soldier during the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s and held prisoner in Iran for seven years.

But nothing had prepared him for the brutalities that were to follow the invasion which US President George W. Bush promised would deliver Iraqis from oppression and violence.

"A car bomb exploded outside our grocery store in November 2005," 53-year-old Alaibi told AFP through soft tears.

"My (grown-up) son who was looking after the store was killed. The blast came right inside" the shop in the Shiite-dominated Shaab district next to Ur, once a favoured target of Sunni insurgents.

"Four months later a suicide bomber blew up his car, again outside our store. Another of my sons was outside in the street and was killed when he was hit in the head by shrapnel," said Alaibi, his face pinched in pain.

"I can't believe they are gone and each day I see their images in front of me as if they are still alive."

His wife, he added, was also being treated -- she has panic attacks and often collapses, writhing on the ground in hysteria.

According to chief psychiatrist Abbudi, all Iraqis have been affected by the war to greater or lesser degrees "depending on how strong they are."

The conditions of those who had already been suffering mental disorders such as psychosis has been aggravated, he said.

The really serious cases are transferred to the larger Al-Rashad hospital in east Baghdad, which has some 1,500 mental patients, added the doctor, who said his facility mainly deals with outpatients.

But, said the father of 10 -- cheerful despite the toll the daily counselling of traumatised people is taking on him personally -- Iraqis "have very adaptive personalities."

"We lived through the Iraq-Iran war, the Gulf War and now we are living through this war. We adapt in a few days or few months. We also have a good support network through our families.

"If this were not so the situation would be far, far worse."

The only psychological study carried out in Iraq since the invasion was on children by the Association of Psychologists of Iraq (API) early in 2006.

It found that children "are seriously suffering psychologically with all the insecurity, especially with the fear of kidnapping and explosions."

"The only things they have on their minds are guns, bullets, death and a fear of the US occupation," said API spokesman Marwan Abdullah when he released the report.

Source: AFP

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