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Iraqi Universities’ Psychological Support Units Struggle to Meet Needs

Iraqi universities’ psychological support units are struggling with a lack of trained specialists and inadequate facilities at a time when their services are needed most, students and mental-health experts say.

Ali Odeh Mohammad, director of the Psychological Research Centre at Iraq’s Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, says mental-health support is critical to help students and other Iraqis cope with the repercussions of decades of conflict and violence.

The trauma of war and the country’s difficult economic conditions today, along with the disrupting effects of the coronavirus pandemic, may be factors contributing to a recent surge in suicides, specialists say. In 2021, Iraq’s Ministry of Interior reported 772 suicide cases, about a hundred more than in 2020.

In a phone call, Mohammed talked to Al-Fanar Media about the great demand for psychological support in Iraq today.

With a staff of 25 researchers specialised in counseling and mental health, the centre undertakes field and applied research on Iraqi society’s problems. It also supervises the mental health and family counseling units at Iraqi universities and academically trains those in charge of them.

Phobias, Depression and Anxiety  

“Internal conflict and instability-related traumas have caused a range of mental-health disorders,” said Mohammed, who is the former chair of the psychology department at Mustansiriyah University’s College of Arts, in Baghdad.

“Internal conflict and instability-related traumas have caused a range of mental-health disorders. In particular, there are symptoms of phobias, depression, and anxiety among students and university teachers alike.”

Ali Odeh Mohammed
Director of the Psychological Research Centre at Iraq’s Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research.

In particular, he said, counselors are seeing “symptoms of phobias, depression, and anxiety among students and university teachers alike, besides substance addiction of many young people driven by the lack of job opportunities.”

The centre’s latest research, conducted in cooperation with the ministry’s Women’s Empowerment Department, explored the psychological effects on women who witnessed armed conflict and were forced to live in displacement camps during the period when the Islamic State controlled most of northwestern Iraq.

The research, which is scheduled to be published next month, included 580 women in four displacement camps in Al-Hamdaniya, Al-Anbar, Khanaqin, and Nineveh. The research, of which Al-Fanar Media obtained an exclusive copy, reveals that the psychological effects on women during conflict and displacement include “experiencing shortness of breath upon remembering their suffering, a sense that life is futile, difficulty in expressing their feelings, anxiety, and fear.”

Mohammed confirmed that long-term mental health research projects “require international support, in light of the limited financial resources for such research, despite its great importance.”

Campus Units’ Difficulties

Since 2008, all Iraqi universities have had psychological support units. However, some of them have stopped working, due to a lack of qualified specialists to run the units, say some teaching staff and students.

Yusriyah Khaled, a medical student at Anbar University, told Al-Fanar Media that “students face several obstacles in accessing psychological counseling services.”

These include “the persistent societal stigma” attached to seeking mental-health services, and the low level of training among counselors, Khaled said. “Most of them are professionally or scientifically unqualified, which makes the experience unhelpful, despite the supposed importance of the unit in addressing the students and professors’ issues.”

She added that the conditions students have experienced in recent years, such as displacement, fear, unemployment, harsh living conditions, and frequent school interruptions, had made them aware of the importance of mental health care as “a science that helps those who have gone through such crises to mitigate their effects.”

“Students face several obstacles in accessing psychological counseling services. These include a persistent societal stigma, and underqualified staff … which makes the experience unhelpful.”

Yusriyah Khaled
 A medical student at the University of Anbar.

In turn, Tahany Talib, an assistant professor at Mustansiriyah University’s psychological counseling department, called for an increase in the number of qualified people to work in the counseling units at Iraqi universities, and for supporting them with training in the latest examination skills and therapeutic methods.

“Addressing mental-health problems in Iraq is a necessity to alleviate the suffering of citizens, and to achieve the goals of reconstruction programmes,” said Talib, who also works at the higher education ministry’s Psychological Research Centre.

Need for Better Facilities

Mohammed, the research centre’s director, also suggested some measures to support mental-health programmes. He called for building new counseling units outside universities and encouraging more students to specialise in mental health and counseling.

Mohammed admits that the counseling units’ headquarters are inadequate, as they are mere rooms and “lack the qualities of facilities designated to provide psychological support.”

Maysaa Jaber, a lecturer of English at the University of Baghdad, described the mental health situation as “frustrating.” She says that mental health affects all aspects of education, but access to mental-health services is difficult for teachers and students alike.

In a Zoom interview, Jaber told Al-Fanar Media that the number of psychologists specialised in counseling is not sufficient to meet the needs of these units. She added that teaching staff refrain from specialising in mental health as job opportunities in this field have been limited over the past years.

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The lack of mental-health specialists at Iraqi medical colleges has prompted some universities to launch study programs in psychology, such as Imam Ja’afar Al-Sadiq University in Baghdad, which started offering a bachelor’s degree in clinical psychology this year.

Mohammed estimates there are 150 psychiatrists in Iraq. “The ministry is seeking to graduate new batches of psychological counseling programmes to become specialised assistants, to fill the big deficit in psychiatric specialists,” he said.

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