Treating Despair Amid Death in Iraq

Dr. Baher Butti, a psychiatrist who works in a mental health clinic in Baghdad, tells Linda Wertheimer how the ongoing violence of the conflict in Iraq affects the people he treats.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This week the number of American service people who've died in Iraq passed 2,000, but it has been far more difficult to count the number of Iraqis who've died as a result of war, crime and insurgent violence in the years since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Muslims often bury their dead without notifying hospitals or mortuaries. Iraqi military and police deaths have been estimated at nearly 6,000. Civilian deaths in that country have been tabulated at anywhere between 26,000 and three times that number. The psychological effect of these losses on Iraqi society has been devastating.

Dr. Baher Butti is a psychiatrist who works in a mental health clinic in Baghdad and with psychiatric patients at a nearby hospital. He sees 40 to 50 people a day. Dr. Butti told us over a difficult telephone line that more Iraqis should be coming for help as they struggle with the effects of long-term violence and upheaval, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression.

Dr. BAHER BUTTI (Psychiatrist): In spite of the increase of the number of cases, what's happening is that there are less people seeking for help. Most of the people, due to the same reasons of violence, are unable to reach the office.

WERTHEIMER: So despite the fact that more people need help, people are afraid...

Dr. BUTTI: Yeah.

WERTHEIMER: ...to come out and come to the doctor...

Dr. BUTTI: Yeah.

WERTHEIMER: ...because of the violence in the streets.

Dr. BUTTI: Yeah. Yeah. That's what's happening.

WERTHEIMER: During Saddam Hussein's regime, obviously...

Dr. BUTTI: Yeah.

WERTHEIMER: ...Iraqis were facing a different kind of threat.

Dr. BUTTI: Yes.

WERTHEIMER: Did you see patients who were victims of Saddam Hussein's government?

Dr. BUTTI: I used to have a few patients who had enough confidence to tell me the truth about their imprisonment, relatives of victims who had been executed and so on.

WERTHEIMER: Well, can you compare that kind of trauma to what is happening now?

Dr. BUTTI: They are now the victims of the new regime.

WERTHEIMER: So...

Dr. BUTTI: So I think most of the Iraqi people now are anxious, they are either depressed in a kind of either hopelessness, helplessness or they are just angry and aggressive. They become aggressive toward each other, and, of course, towards the Americans.

WERTHEIMER: Do you have facilities to treat these kinds of patients?

Dr. BUTTI: No. As a matter of fact, there is a large shortage. Unfortunately, there hasn't been any improvement in these facilities as yet.

WERTHEIMER: Do you have any hope that democracy could help to change those feelings of hopelessness and helplessness that you're seeing?

Dr. BUTTI: I have my personal view that the Iraq people who are either trying to exchange places with Saddam Hussein, with the same authoritarian policies, or people just trying to stay in power, and the people, normal people, are ignored by both sides.

WERTHEIMER: So what you're saying is that what is going on now is just as hard on the ordinary citizens as anything that happened before was.

Dr. BUTTI: Yeah. Pretty much.

WERTHEIMER: Dr. Butti, thank you very much.

Dr. BUTTI: You are most welcome. And I should thank you for communicating with Iraqi people.

WERTHEIMER: Dr. Baher Butti is a psychiatrist in Baghdad. He has set up a foundation to help with humanitarian and social care for psychiatric patients in Iraq. To learn more, go to our Web site, npr.org.

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