Iraq: Mental health project empowers Iraqis to take back their lives

29 Apr 2013
Press release

Decades of conflict, political instability and social upheaval have left many Iraqis vulnerable to psychological stress, mental health disorders and in need of mental healthcare says Medicine Sans Frontiers/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in a new report launched in Baghdad today, April 29th 2013.

MSF’s new report, Healing Iraqis: the Challenges of Providing Mental Healthcare in Iraq, records examples of the impact constant day to day violence have had on many Iraqi men, women and children, and describes the development, together with the Ministry of Health, of a programme to provide counselling care.

Scale up mental healthcare services

MSF says there is an urgent need to scale up mental healthcare services in the country. MSF calls on the Iraqi Ministry of Health, and those who support them, to improve the quality and access to mental health services by integrating counselling into existing health facilities across Iraq.

MSF also notes that more must be done to reduce the stigma of mental health to encourage people to come forward for counselling.

Since 2009, MSF has been working in Iraq providing mental health counselling to men, women and children in conjunction with the Iraqi Ministry of Health.

MSF’s programmes focus on non pharmaceutical approaches to address anxiety and depressive disorders commonly experienced by those exposed to violence and uncertainty.

“Many Iraqis have been pushed to their absolute limit as decades of conflict and instability have wreaked devastation," says Helen O’Neill, MSF’s Iraq Head of Mission.

"Mentally exhausted by their experiences, many 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 healthcare services that people can turn to for help.”

Psychological counselling

Over the past four years MSF and the Iraqi Ministry of Health have introduced psychological counselling services in two hospitals in Baghdad and one in Fallujah. There are plans to use this as a model of care that can be replicated in other health care facilities across the country with the IMOH starting new units in Kut, Karbala and Sulaymaniyah Hospitals.

MSF also recommends the Iraqi health system integrates psychological counselling into community based primary healthcare services to increase access, particularly to women and children.

According to patient data collected in 2012 by MSF and the Ministry of Health in Iraq, 97 percent of people who presented for counselling reported clinically significant psychological symptoms at admission. When measured on the last visit, this figure had reduced to 29 percent.

Together these three categories make up almost 75 percent of the cases seen by MSF. Even excluding domestic conflict, almost half of all cases seen in the programme (48 percent) were violence-related. Nearly all staff and patients in MSF’s mental health programme have either experienced or know someone near to them who has been directly impacted by a violent event over the past few years.

Patient testimonies

The report carries testimony from Iraqis traumatised and struggling to rebuild lives after witnessing extreme violence.

A 36-year-old widowed mother of three describes how she started counselling sessions after her life had been turned upside down two years ago when her husband was killed

“I started attending the mental health counselling sessions when I felt tired and very sad. I felt I had a psychological problem and that made me disturbed because I’m unable to cope well with others. I lost my husband two years ago and the incident affected my life. It changed my life, it turned my life upside down. I’m now the only one left responsible for raising my kids.”

A 10-year-old child describes how counselling has helped her improve her speech:

“I started attending the sessions to help improve my speech and help me overcome my fear. 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.”

Providing care for such traumatic experience is not easy, but the counselling model has proven to be beneficial in help people regain a level of dignity and control of their lives.

Healing Iraqis: Recommendations

  • To improve the quality of mental health services by integrating the counselling model into existing mental health facilities throughout Iraq.
  • Advertise the availability of services and reduce stigma by talking openly about the issue of mental illness, through for example, a country wide public campaign.
  • To Continue training new and experienced counsellors for new sites.
  • To provide supervision and quality control of counsellors using the trained team of trainer/supervisors.
  • To integrate the use of video conferencing supervision in new sites.
  • To expand the telephone helpline services so that any Iraqi with phone access can seek basic information and advice free of charge.
  • To assign the necessary budget and human resources to increase health care services and public awareness of available care.

Find out more about MSF's work in Iraq