Photo credit: Harvard Gazette, May 4, 2010
Iraqi Psychiatrist Abdul Kareem Al-Obaidi has been working to combat mental illness in Iraqi children due to collateral damage in the Iraq War. He is currently the Medical Services Supervisor at Enlightened Health Inc. in Katy, TX. He was also a professor at Institute of International Education in New York as well as Salem Community College in New Jersey. He was also a consultant psychiatrist and researcher/lecturer at Behman Hospital in Cairo, Egypt and AlYermook Teaching Hospital and Al-Mustansyriah Medical College in Baghdad, Iraq.
His main focus is on child and adolescent mental health in combat zones. I found him extremely interesting because, over my last four years at La Salle, I have focused a lot on mental health in United States veterans in areas such as Homelessness, PTSD and Suicide. I thought it was interesting that he is doing the same work I have been doing, but on the other side of the line.
The Harvard Gazette
Mental illness among Iraqi children and adolescents, who make up half the nation’s population, is a hidden problem, an expatriate Iraqi psychiatrist said, adding that the country has few mental health professionals or facilities to help them.
Abdul Kareem Al-Obaidi told a small audience at a Harvard School of Public Health “global chat” last week (April 29) that one of the difficulties in addressing the problem is that its scope is unknown.
While major national surveys of child and adolescent mental health are lacking, he cited several smaller studies that showed increased rates of mental conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in the cities of Baghdad, Mosul, and Nassiriya. One 2007 study in Mosul, for example, showed that 37 percent of children who were patients at a primary health facility complained of a mental disorder.
Al-Obaidi, whose visit to the United States is being hosted by the International Institute of Education, said many factors work against the mental health of young Iraqis, including being victims of violence, seeing family members become victims, being displaced from their homes, and the instability that still plagues the nation.
The chat was sponsored by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. Initiative Director Michael J. VanRooyen, an associate professor at both the Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School, said many people don’t appreciate the level of risk that Iraqi scholars such as Al-Obaidi are under.
Al-Obaidi left Iraq in 2006 after he received death threats. He moved to Jordan and then Egypt, where he provided informal psychiatric services to the Iraqi refugee community. Al-Obaidi said the violence in Iraq has been so bad for so long that recent bombings, which killed 200 and injured 600, have been dubbed Bloody Sunday and Bloody Friday, joining Bloody Tuesday and Bloody Wednesday from earlier bombings.
“All the days of the week are bloody,” Al-Obaidi said.
No one is immune from the violence. One bombing that struck a nursery killed 60 children.
As a workaday society, Iraq has fallen quite far, Al-Obaidi said. As recently as the 1970s, it had among the best education systems in the region. The decline began in the 1980s under autocratic leader Saddam Hussein, with the Iran-Iraq War, international sanctions, and professionals fleeing the country. Torture was common, and was another cause of mental illness.
After the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, the government’s collapse made it impossible to garner statistics on mental health, Al-Obaidi said. Other statistics, however, show how far Iraq has fallen, with 80 percent of the people living without adequate sanitation, 70 percent without clean water, 50 percent without work, and 43 percent in poverty. Millions of Iraqis live as refugees both inside and outside the country.
Solutions are necessary, Al-Obaidi said, that allow services to get to those in need. More mental health professionals are needed, for a start, he said. The nation has only two mental health hospitals, both in Baghdad. Neither specializes in care for children. In fact, there are no inpatient beds for children suffering mental illnesses.
Despite the need, Al-Obaidi cautioned against just copying services available in the West to jump-start treatment.
“We need to do comprehensive and culturally appropriate services, rather than copying something from the West,” Al-Obaidi said.
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER EDITORIAL BOARD
That wars yield collateral damage is something we know, but tend not to dwell upon. It's just too horrible to think of. The worst of the worst of those unbearable thoughts has to be what becomes of the children, who, it seems, pay the highest price for whatever conflict in the midst of which they find themselves.
In 2002, a United Nations emergency preparedness report estimated that roughly 1.26 million Iraqi children would die in the event of a conflict there. Just how many children have died as the result of the war in Iraq is unclear, but what of the ones who live? What sort of life, if any at all, awaits them?
According to Dr. Abdul Kareem Al Obaidi, who is the chairman of the Iraqi Association for Child Mental Health, Iraqi kids are suffering serious psychological and behavioral problems (depression, post-traumatic stress, anxiety, substance abuse, high rates of truancy, etc.) that weren't common in Iraq's roughly 16 million children prior to the war.
In a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Al Obaidi outlined the "desperate" situation of children dealing with "unbearable traumas and heart-wrenching experiences." Quoted in Britain's Independent newspaper, Al Obaidi's letter said, "Our children carry the future of Iraq and that future is being corrupted. The risk is great, not just for our country, but for the region and the world."
What can be salvaged for those children is uncertain. But while we're liberating their country and spreading democracy there, perhaps we should give some thought as to what sort of future we're mapping out for Iraq by leaving its people with a population of damaged children who will one day become broken, angry adults with clear memories of how they came to be so.
Below is a list of some of Al-Obaidi's publications over the years. This is not a comprehensive list of all of his work, but these are a few examples of some of his publications that focus on the mental health of children who have been effected by war in the Middle East, specifically in Iraq.