Iraqi Mental Health Deteriorates with Violence

Because of continuing violence in their country, many Iraqis are depressed. Psychological problems including post-traumatic stress are on the rise, and there has been a surge in substance abuse.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

And I'm John Ydstie.

In Iraq today, another suicide bombing. This one outside the police headquarters in Fallujah. The bomber was standing in a line of police recruits when he set off his explosives. More than a dozen people were killed and more than two dozen were wounded.

And in Baghdad, police discovered the bodies of 14 Iraqi men who had been tied up and shot--the latest victims in an on-going wave of sectarian violence.

The relentless violence is taking its toll on Iraqis who survive attacks, witness them, or have people close to them abducted and killed. It's led to a surge in substance abuse, as NPR's Jamie Tarabay reports from Baghdad.

JAMIE TARABAY reporting:

Rorla Monere(ph) sips her tea slowly. She's pale and hasn't combed her hair in months. She doesn't think she has to since she doesn't go anywhere anymore. Not even to college, where she was working on a biology degree.

Ms. RORLA MONERE (Female college student, Iraq): (Through translator) My parents took me out of college. They are afraid for me because of what happened to my two best friends.

TARABAY: In January of this year, Rorla and her two closest girlfriends, Sama(ph) and Nor(ph) were outside campus. They were waiting for their driver to come pick them up when a car filled with armed men suddenly pulled up in front of them. They grabbed Sama, dragged her inside the car, and beat her as her friends stood outside screaming.

The men were after someone else, another girl to kidnap and demand a ransom from wealthy parents. But even when they realized they had the wrong girl, they didn't let Sama go.

Ms. MONERE: (Through translator) They could have let her out of the car, but they didn't. They took her away and they raped her. Four of them raped her. And she's so young.

TARABAY: The men then demanded a ransom for Sama. Her parents paid and when she was released the whole family left Iraq for Jordan. Nor and Rorla continued to go to college together-but not for long.

Ms. MONERE: (Through translator) She went to a bookshop with her mother to photocopy notes of some lectures she'd missed. A suicide car bomb blew up and killed her mother straightaway. Nor didn't die. Shrapnel hit her back and she's now in a wheelchair.

TARABAY: Nor's father took her to Syria to try to get her better medical care, leaving Rorla without her two best friends.

Ms. MONERE: (Through translator) I felt lost walking alone on campus. I stayed home. Then I thought, I can't waste my future. I should finish and graduate." But my family didn't let me. They are afraid. They are afraid of the explosions and the kidnappings. My mom goes to work, my father goes to work, there's no one for me to talk to.

TARABAY: Rorla began taking sleeping pills to get her through the nights when she was terrified someone would try to storm the house. Now she takes the pills to dull the restlessness and the pain.

Ms. MONERE: (Through translator) The pills don't have any effect anymore because I take so many of them. I just want my day to finish. I spend it alone.

TARABAY: She says she's not in the mood for anything anymore. She used to wear bright colors and care about her figure. Now she only wears black and isn't interested in doing girly things like getting her hair done.

Ms. MONERE: (Through translator) I used to take care of myself. You tell me, is this was a 21-year-old is supposed to look like?

TARABAY: Rorla's parents worry that she's not eating because she drinks too much coffee and smokes too many cigarettes. They don't know about her dependence on the pills, and she hasn't sought help. But others have.

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At Ibn Rushd Psychiatric Hospital in central Baghdad, Dr. Jaffe Yacub(ph) struggles with the influx of patients. He says every time there's a major bombing, dozens stream through his door.

Dr. JAFFE YACUB (Ibn Rushd Psychiatric Hospital, Baghdad): (Through translator) Let me give you an example. When the Samarra shrine was blown up, the next day wards were filled with patients. I swear to God, patients were saying, they're going to kill us! Who's going to kill you? They say, we are Sunnis, and the Shiites shall kill us!

TARABAY: Yacub says he gives patients anxiety medication or sleeping pills, and he tries to give them small enough doses so they don't become dependent. But he says he can only do so much.

Dr. YACUB: A week after they leave they're back again, drunk or on drugs. One man said, Why shouldn't I drink? There are explosions everywhere, so let me relax.

TARABAY: The Ministry of Health says since the U.S. invasion there's been a 35 percent jump in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Dr. Ali al-Hammed(ph), from the ministry's substance abuse program, says much of the trauma is prolonged because of the recurring violence, so people aren't able to move on. He says people develop anxiety; they get flashbacks, depression, nightmares, bedwetting.

The Ministry is opening more clinics to deal with the rise in trauma and substance abuse cases.

According to one Baghdad clinic's records, 60 percent more Iraqis suffering from depression are switching from alcohol to prescription drugs because it's more discreet, it's cheaper, and it's not against their religion. For people like Rorla Monere, they're also easier to acquire. Rorla says she feels trapped at home with no one to talk to, and only goes out to get more pills.

Ms. MONERE: (Through translator) Is better to die. My wish is to die, to be free and rest. Better than this slaughter.

TARABAY: She says she'll keep taking the pills until all the pain is gone.

Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad.

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