Iran's economic crisis is taking a heavy toll on mental health
A fraught, unstable economy has been the lived experience of generations of Iranians who have found their lives haunted by the dark shadow of the country’s isolation and unremitting fracas with the international community.
The authorities keep gloating about the Islamic Republic mutating from a regional power into a superpower, but what the ordinary Iranians endure through their day-to-day experiences is a mélange of conundrums: hyperinflation, dwindling purchasing power, steep devaluation of national currency and unemployment.
Iran’s economic ailments have driven thousands of gifted Iranians away from the country in search of opportunity elsewhere, drained the government’s ability to procure infrastructure and transportation and impinged on the availability of adequate healthcare and education. These are the adversities the national economy, beleaguered by grinding sanctions and deep-seated corruption, has taken for granted for years.
"One of the grim consequences of this decades-long backsliding is that the mental well-being of the Iranian people has been seriously impaired, to the point that it’s not hyperbolic to assert the nation is on the cusp of a mental health implosion"
One of the grim consequences of this decades-long backsliding is that the mental well-being of the Iranian people has been seriously impaired, to the point that it’s not hyperbolic to assert the nation is on the cusp of a mental health implosion.
In Gallup’s 2022 Global Emotions Report released in July capturing the state of emotional health across the globe, Iran ranked as the 9th angriest country out of 122 countries surveyed. In the measurement of sadness, it fares comparably dismally as the 13th saddest country. The study reveals a total of 54% of Iranians have experienced worry during a “lot of yesterday.”
Although Gallup’s numbers paint a dim picture of rampant anxiety in Iranian society, local data is even more alarming, with most experts attributing this aura of collective unhappiness to the unpromising economic indicators of the country which have left the majority of the populace stranded, floundering for stability and bare-bones survival.
To get a bird’s eye view of how people are coping under a blend of stubborn sanctions and government incompetence, it suffices to refer to Hanke’s Annual Misery Index, whose latest rendition of 2021 ranks Iran 10th out of 156 countries, illustrating how unfavourable the situation is in a resource-rich country that possesses the world’s second largest natural gas and fourth largest crude oil reserves.
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In the age group 14-65, comprising 50 million people and 62% of the population, up to 15 million people suffer from at least one mental disorder, a Ministry of Health official said last year. The same official also stated that around 40% of the people are aware of being exposed to mental complications like depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and affective disorders, but refuse to seek medical advice, mostly due to social stigmas.
No matter the strides the sciences of psychiatry and psychology have made domestically, especially with young doctors receiving education overseas and coming back to serve their community, the possibilities are limited and many people, especially in the most underprivileged areas, find it impractical to receive help from qualified practitioners.
In 2019, it was determined that for 85 million Iranians, there are only 1,500 psychiatrists and 6,000 psychologists who remain available. The figures haven’t been updated, but in 2020, the Ministry of Health reported just one psychiatrist per 45,000 Iranians.
Iran’s mental health crisis is producing more frightful and dangerous outcomes. Suicide is now seen by many young Iranians as a solution to elude the hardships of life and refuse being steamrolled to face scenarios of insolvency.
As documented by the National Forensic Medicine Organization (LMO), between March 2020 and January 2021, at least 15 people put an end to their lives each day in what marks a staggering surge of the rate of suicide in a Muslim-majority country, where the religious scholars describe suicide an unforgivable sin in line with the teachings of Islam.
The World Health Organization has found the crude suicide rate per 100,000 population in Iran is higher than most countries in the Eastern Mediterranean region, including the war-stricken Syria, countries such as Sudan and Lebanon rattled by economic and political turmoil and even Libya, one of the world’s most fragile states.
The terminal economic hardships that presently don’t seem curable have made the livelihoods of Iranians wrought with precarity, but also proliferated mental disorders and the feelings of anger, dejection and exclusion among many of them.
"These [problems] are emblematic of a society that is clearly reeling from a multi-pronged crisis but is sweating to pull through"
Much of what is at stake cannot be gauged in academic studies and surveys; rather, these scars and their bearings have been hardwired in the lifestyle, habits and choices of the people on the streets and it’s only through real-life interactions in Tehran, Karaj, Mashhad, Shiraz, Isfahan and elsewhere in the country that it’s possible to discern the trends.
People have become impatient and irritable, arguments in public places have become frequent, queues are not observed, bickering is ubiquitous on social media, the driving culture has spiralled into insanity and government offices are often scenes of squabbling between the administrative workers and unhappy clients. These are emblematic of a society that is clearly reeling from a multi-pronged crisis but is sweating to pull through.
Knowing that the nation is teetering on the edge of mental vulnerability, the government doesn’t give up its hardline tendencies and continues multiplying the pressures in different ways, including by intensifying the compulsory hijab codes with the police patrols stirring daily skirmishes with women.
All the while, civil liberties are dwarfed routinely, the youths’ private spaces are encroached on, arts and culture circumscribed and new internet crackdowns brandished every now and then add to the netizens’ apprehensions.
Rubbing salt into the wound, officials and religious figures habitually make incendiary speeches and their divisive rhetoric on foreign policy, civil liberties, women rights and lifestyle augment anger and anxiety in a country that certainly doesn’t need extra fault lines as it is crumbling under unspeakable external pressure.
It is indeed possible to right these wrongs and induct a public atmosphere that is characterised by social cohesion, happiness, stability and peace. Yet, this is one of the many decisions the Iranian leadership hasn’t made yet, to help its people redeem themselves from this avalanche of mental turmoil.
Kourosh Ziabari is an award-winning Iranian journalist and reporter. He is the Iran correspondent of Fair Observer and Asia Times. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office and an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford Fellowship.
Follow him on Twitter @KZiabari
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