The Iraqi Ministry of Health and its supporters should improve access to mental health care services for a population still reeling from decades of conflict, political instability, and social upheaval.
BAGHDAD/NEW YORK, APRIL 30, 2013—The Iraqi Ministry of Health and its supporters should improve access to mental health care services for a population still reeling from decades of conflict, political instability, and social upheaval, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said in a report released today.
The report, Healing Iraqis: The Challenges of Providing Mental Health Care in Iraq, shows how the toll of day-to-day violence has affected Iraqis, leaving people vulnerable to psychological stress, mental health disorders, and in dire need of mental health care services. It calls on the Iraqi Ministry of Health (IMoH) to improve mental health care services by integrating counseling into existing health facilities across Iraq. MSF also noted that more must be done to reduce the stigma of accessing mental health services in order to encourage more people to seek counseling
“Many Iraqis have been pushed to their absolute limit,” said Helen O’Neill, MSF’s head of mission in Iraq. “Mentally exhausted by their experiences, many people struggle to understand what is happening to them. The feelings of isolation and hopelessness are compounded by the taboo associated with mental health issues and the lack of mental health care services that people can turn to for help,” she said.
Since 2009, MSF and the IMoH have introduced psychological counseling services in two hospitals in Baghdad and one in Fallujah. The programs focus on non-pharmaceutical approaches to address anxiety and depressive disorders commonly experienced by people exposed to violence and uncertainty. There are plans to replicate this counseling model across the country, with the IMoH starting programs in Kut, Karbala, and Sulaymaniyah hospitals.
According to patient data collected in 2012 by MSF and the IMoH, 97 percent of people who presented for counseling reported clinically significant psychological symptoms at admission. When measured on the last visit, the figure was reduced to 29 percent. Even when excluding domestic conflict, almost half of all cases seen in the program—48 percent—were violence-related. Nearly all staff and patients in the mental health program have either directly experienced or know someone close to them who has been directly affected by a violent event over recent years.
The report includes testimonies from Iraqis traumatized and struggling to rebuild lives after witnessing extreme violence.
A 36-year-old widowed mother of three describes how she began counseling sessions after her husband was killed.
“I lost my husband two years ago and the incident affected my life,” she said. “It changed my life, it turned my life upside down. I’m now the only one left responsible for raising my kids.”
One child, ten years old, describes how counseling has helped her improve her speech:
“I started attending the sessions to help improve my speech and help me overcome my fear,” she said. “I’m scared of everything. My body is always shivering. I can’t spell words correctly anymore. My teacher and my fellow classmates beat me all the time in school. I can’t study or learn anything. I’m unable to concentrate. I don’t talk to anyone. This is the first time I’ve talked to anyone about my problems.”