Why suicide is on the rise among Iraqi youths

Why suicide is on the rise among Iraqi youths
Young Iraqis are being driven to despair as dire economic conditions exacerbate a growing mental health crisis.
4 min read
Youth-driven anti-government protests swept Iraq last year. [Getty]
In oil-rich Iraq, young people are struggling to find work. Unemployment was one of the major drivers of the October protest movement that erupted last year, but has not been addressed by the government, who instead responded to demonstrations with violence.

The country is now facing a rising suicide rate among Iraqi youths, with many analysts attributing it to the economic hopelessness so many have experienced since 2003. 

During the first eight months of 2020, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) announced 298 suicides across Iraq, including 68 in Baghdad, 39 in Basra and 30 in Dhi Qar. Some government statistics show that the number of suicides has doubled since 2003.

There are multiple contributing factors to suicide rates, including both personal problems and social issues. Economic hardship, however, has been a constant source of public despair, with unemployment rising steadily over the past decade and Iraq facing significant challenges since the defeat of the Islamic State (IS) in 2017.

"Family problems and economic reasons, in addition to psychological pressures recently due to the coronavirus pandemic, have all led to an increase in suicide rates and suicide attempts in Iraq," Dr. Ali Al-Bayati, a member of the High Commission for Human Rights, told The New Arab.

The official data is not accurate, the real numbers are bigger, many people keep it hidden for social reasons

"Also, the lack of interest in mental health and a lack of planning by the government to deal with this problem has led to an increase in cases of psychological problems that can contribute to suicide."

Videos of attempted suicides from bridges in the country have been widely shared across social media platforms. The problem has become so severe that the government proposed building a safety wall along bridges over the Tigris River in Baghdad, but many Iraqis have decried the measure as simply a band-aid rather than a radical solution.

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The Covid-19 pandemic has also contributed to an alarming increase in domestic violence across the country, with several high-profile crimes – including a woman throwing her children from a bridge - shocking the nation. One survey by Iraqi Family Health found that one in five Iraqi women experience domestic violence.

"The southern cities, including Basra, recorded the highest rates of suicide or suicide attempts, and their ages range from 18 to 30 years old. So, as always the official data is not accurate, the real numbers are bigger, many people keep it hidden for social reasons," a doctor in Basra who preferred to remain anonymous told The New Arab

"We sometimes face pressure from relatives and tribal authorities to prevent us from conducting post-mortem examinations to investigate the cause of death. This happens for two reasons," the doctor added.

"The first stems from a socio-religious reason that the autopsy would damage the body, and the second reason is to cover up the real reason behind the death, as the family refuse to disclose it due to social and religious concerns".

Al-Bayati agrees with the doctor that official suicide statistics are often much lower than the real numbers. "The numbers issued by the Judicial Council regarding the number of suicides are always lower than what is announced by other private sectors or NGOs," he said. 

Unemployment was one of the major drivers of the October protest movement that erupted last year

"It is true that investigations are conducted with suicides but sometimes in the tribal areas they have tried to hide it and that affects getting to the truth about suicide or suicide attempts in such communities".

Sometimes families will hide the cause of death by using "sudden death" on official reports rather than suicide. In other cases, however, deaths recorded as suicides are in fact what could be referred to as  'honor crimes', where the family has killed their daughter or son but tell the authorities it is suicide to exempt the perpetrators from punishment.

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"As far as I know, the Iraqi government does not allocate any part of the financial budget for mental health," Dr. Heba Al-Sufr, director of Sarah Center for Psychological Treatment and Rehabilitation in Basra, told The New Arab

No hotlines or emergency numbers exist in hospitals to contact in case of a suicide attempt, while at the same time many people are wary of visiting psychologists for fear that it will bring a social stigma on their family.

"Most Iraqis prefer to stay away from psychological rehabilitation centers, and go to visit charlatans, who they think will provide them with treatment. There is a need to raise public awareness of mental health and how important it is to help youths from thinking about suicide," al-Sufr said.

"We are working hard by offering awareness sessions on social networking sites and introducing the community to the importance of mental health and safety."

Azhar Al-Rubaie is a freelance journalist based in Iraq. His writing focuses on a variety of issues, including politics, health, society, war, and human rights. Follow him on Twitter: @AzherRubaie

Mohammed Qasim is a freelance journalist based in Basra. His work focuses on politics, human rights and LGBTQ issues. Follow him on Twitter: @a98kk