Pakistani psychiatrists blame Taliban for driving up mental illness rate

BY Ashfaq Yusufzai

Mental health professionals and civil society activists October 10 in Peshawar march during World Mental Health Day. [Ashfaq Yusufzai]

Mental health professionals and civil society activists October 10 in Peshawar march during World Mental Health Day. [Ashfaq Yusufzai]

PESHAWAR -- Pakistani psychiatrists are blaming the Taliban for more than 10 years of increasing rates of mental illness in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and parts of adjacent Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP).

"There has been a steep rise in psychiatric ailments among the residents of FATA and KP since 2005 when militants began full-fledged violence," Prof Syed Muhammad Sultan, president of the Pakistan Psychiatric Society, said at a Peshawar seminar held October 10 to mark World Mental Health Day.

He did not cite the incidence before or after.

About 60% of the patients admitted to the psychiatry ward of Khyber Teaching Hospital (KTH) came from FATA or Malakand Division, he said during his speech.

About 40% of the patients in KTH's psychiatry ward are women who lost husbands, brothers, children and other relatives to Taliban violence, he said.

The only way to protect the public from skyrocketing rates of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is to have long-term peace, he said.

The KP government recently appointed 20 psychiatrists at district level to provide prompt care to affected citizens, KP Health Minister Shahram Tarakai told Pakistan Forward.

"We hold health camps [public events] where experts provide free services and medicine," he said. "We increased budgetary allocations to ensure that all the mentally ill receive free medication."

In Malakand Division, the KP government has begun a programme to provide free counselling and medication to the mentally ill, he said.

Tragic memories

Muhammad Mustafa, a resident of North Waziristan Agency who is receiving treatment at Sarhad Psychiatric Hospital in Peshawar, condemns the Taliban militants for their savagery.

"In 2006, the Taliban killed my two older brothers for no reason at all," Mustafa, 22, told Pakistan Forward. "They told my father to leave or face similar treatment."

"Since then, our family has suffered economic problems," he said. "We used to have a general store that made good money. But now we live in a rented mud house in Charsadda."

Shafique Khan, 19, who fled to Charsadda District from Mohmand Agency years ago after the Taliban killed his father, said that his father sold vegetables from a pushcart to support a seven-member family.

"I come to Lady Reading Hospital [in Peshawar] every month," he told Pakistan Forward. "I take medicine for depression. I dream of the day the Taliban killed my father in front of me."

He cannot work because his treatment causes him to sleep most of the time, he added.

A panoply of diseases

Terrorism is a major cause of obsessive-compulsive disorder, phobias and drug abuse among survivors of violence, Peshawar psychologist Iftikhar Hussain told Pakistan Forward.

"We've treated 5,500 patients, mostly from violence-hit areas, in the past three years [at Lady Reading Hospital]," he said. "These ailments can be prevented through quick investigation and treatment."

Patients who witnessed terrorism present with similar symptoms, he said. They experienced repeated flashbacks of their close relatives dying.

An estimated 7m Pakistanis, out of a population of about 180m, suffer from anxiety and depression, mostly from violence-related causes, he said.

In 2010, the Taliban killed Jan Anwara's 23-year-old son before her very eyes in South Waziristan, the widow told Pakistan Forward.

Shot by an AK-47, he died "in my lap", she said. "I have been praying ever since to God Almighty to destroy the Taliban."

Her prayers came true "because the perpetrators of militancy have disappeared", she said.

"She needs pharmaceutical and psychiatric intervention," Iftikhar, her doctor, said.

Early treatment is critical in ensuring better results, he added.

The KP government recently started a programme with the Pakistan Psychiatric Society to treat patients with mental disorders, Parvez Kamal, KP director of health services, told Pakistan Forward.

As much as a third of the population in Malakand suffers from PTSD, after enduring the Taliban's reign of terror from 2007 to 2009, he said.

"We have recorded an increase in mental ailments among displaced persons from [North and South] Waziristan who live in five KP districts," he said.

"The prevalence of anxiety disorders and depression is 34% in displaced persons," he said. "Fifty percent of displaced children have depression."

Innovations considered

Meanwhile, the KP government is considering making mental health part of primary medicine in the province.

"We want to do away with the stigma associated with psychiatric illness," Kamal said. "Many people won't visit a psychiatrist."

It is natural to suffer depression if you have lost relatives, businesses and schools, Peshawar-based security analyst Khadim Hussain told Pakistan Forward.

"We appreciate the Pakistani army for acting against militants in FATA," he said. "We hope that the people's lives will become better soon."

The public is still suffering the aftershocks of the Taliban's brutality in FATA and Malakand, he said.

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