Faith Healers Rewarded by Shortage of Psychiatrists in Iraq


BUSINESS is booming for faith healers in Basra, according to Dr Akeel Al-Sabbagh, senior lecturer at the city’s Medical College and Director of the region’s Mental Health Council.

“Since the second Gulf War ended in 2003, there are thousands of them here, charging patients as much as 10 times what it would cost to see a doctor. It’s supply and demand. They realised the demand was there, that people had the money to pay for what they do, so more and more of them took the opportunity to profit from the situation,” he says.

Almost one in five Basrawis – 17 per cent of the city’s population – are suffering from trauma, or post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), to give its medical name, according to figures from the World Health Organisation. “But I suspect the true figure is higher than that,” Dr Al-Sabbagh affirms.

Before seeking treatment at his clinic, most patients visit faith healers hoping that they will drive the ‘spirit’ they believe is causing their anxiety and mental illness out of their body.

“Sometimes the healers will hit them. I’ve had patients coming to me with facial injuries, bruises, fractures, broken bones, and even burns.

“While many had always been superstitious to a certain extent, most poorer and uneducated Basrawis became even more so after the war. Many believe in ‘Djinn,’ -the Devil – and his ability to enter their bodies unseen and harm them in all kinds of ways from within.”

He sees up to 80 patients a day – mostly children and mothers – and a significant increase from before the war, when he saw about 60 a day.

Many children from the region who have cancer also suffer from depression, have nightmares or have general trouble sleeping.

“I also see children who have become irritable due to their illnesses causing them to hit their siblings or lash out at other family members,” he adds.

Among his adult patients are those who were tortured by the police or by Saddam’s forces in the past. Some hear voices; others develop obsessions or start to hallucinate. Others with anxiety or other mental scars were the victims of kidnapping or had threats made against them.

However, there are very few psychiatrists in Iraq and virtually no psychologists at all in Iraq. There are only four in Baghdad, with a population of 5 million. In Basra, there are only two. There are only 18 beds for mental health patients in the city, which are always full, and no separate beds for children or teenagers.

Although the government now aims to rebuild the ruined mental healthcare system, there is still resistance to the idea of psychotherapy and treatment through talking to patients. Some of Dr Al-Sabbagh’s peers believe drugs or electroconvulsive therapy are more effective.

“Iraqi doctors don’t generally believe in psychiatry and psychology. The position of psychologist or even social worker is not recognised by the Ministry of Health.

“There is no college for psychologists anywhere in Iraq, you can’t take a degree in psychology here, and no-one wants to become a psychologist in Iraq,” he says.

At country’s first multidisciplinary clinic for PTSD in Basra, which is supported by Save The Children and where Dr Al-Sabbagh works as a consultant psychiatrist, a psychiatrist, a community health doctor, a social worker and a gynaecologist are leading a joint effort that involves deciding on the best form of treatment after taking all of a patient’s circumstances into account.

While the aim is to roll out more such clinics will be rolled out across the country, Dr Al-Sabbagh and his colleagues acknowledge that it will take many years before the system can effectively treat the post-war legacy of trauma and anxiety that remains among Iraq’s people.

In addition to Save The Children’s support, other help from outside the country is slowly making a difference. Last year, 360 primary-care doctors took two-week crash courses in depression, anxiety, psychosis and other afflictions, using a curriculum developed in London for Nigeria.

Danish and German NGOs have also been working in Iraq for the past three years to introduce doctors and social workers here to the merits of cognitive behavioural therapy.

Meanwhile, later this year additional multidisciplinary teams of Iraqi medical staff will train in the US through a programme that Dr Al-Sabbagh first became involved with in 2008 after forging links with counterparts in Boston.

Nevertheless, it may take some time before there’s a downturn in the questionable trade being plied by faith healers in Basra and elsewhere in Iraq.

John Reynolds visited Basra with award-winning Irish film-maker Dearbhla Glynn.

Thanks to Save The Children for their assistance. (









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