Doctors link militancy trauma to increased mental illness among Pakistanis

By Muhammad Shakil


A Pakistani mother (second left) last February 17 mourns along with others over the coffin of her 13-year-old son, who was killed in the bombing of a shrine in Sehwan, Sindh Province. Traumatic events caused by militancy have increased mental illness among Pakistanis, including children, say analysts. [Asif Hassan/AFP]

PESHAWAR -- Militancy in Pakistan has caused a spike in psychological disorders among citizens, especially children who are more prone to mental trauma because of their tender age, say medics.

"Insurgency and militancy have put the majority of the population of Pakistan and Afghanistan under continuous duress, pushing them towards mental distortion and severe trauma-related disorders," Dr. Khalid Mufti, a psychiatrist and owner of Idabat Hospital in Peshawar, told Pakistan Forward.

Mufti said he has observed soaring prevalence of such ailments in areas of the tribal belt that have seen prolonged instability and war during the past two decades.

Many inhabitants of the belt are affected by various forms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can include depression, behaviour problems, anger and suicide attempts.

"More than 54% of residents of areas of conflict have reported symptoms of severe stress, depression, anxiety and [PTSD]," he said, adding that victims of terrorism and militancy comprise 70-72% of all Pakistanis who suffer from stress disorders.

"Militancy has left most of the population, including children, traumatised, adversely affecting their mental conditions," he said.

Children suffer the most

"Unfortunately, children, who have a more fragile and easy-to-influence state of mind than do adults, are major victims of militancy and terrorism," Mufti said.

"The percentage of children suffering from various mental disorders was about 1% about 18 years ago," he said. Now, however, the rate has grown to 13%, with the major contributing factor being militancy and its after-effects, he said.

At the same time, while children are more vulnerable than adults are to trauma, their resiliency makes them likelier to recover, said Mufti.

He stressed the importance of seeking proper medical attention for PTSD, rather than turning to traditional methods of treatment.

"A victim can overcome his [or her] fear after trauma, but it is difficult for a patient to free himself from the clutches of paranoia, depression, anxiety and compulsive disorders that come after witnessing a [disturbing] scene without proper [medical] consultation and counseling," he said.

Proper treatment of mental illness

The establishment of a peaceful environment and a larger professional psychiatric workforce are needed in order to treat and manage the increased prevalence of mental illnesses, according to Mufti, who also runs the Horizon NGO, which helps patients with mental disorders.

Horizon provided free post-traumatic stress counseling to 50 students who were present during the December 2014 terrorist attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar and their families.

Terrorists killed more than 140 children and teachers that day.

Those APS survivors and their families are among more than 1,000 patients -- the majority of whom have suffered from militancy in one way or another -- who have obtained counselling and free treatment at Horizon, Masooma Bibi, a co-ordinator at the NGO, told Pakistan Forward.

Medics witnessed PTSD not only in patients directly affected by militancy and terrorism but also in those who suffer from displacement, economic uncertainty, lack of education and poor conditions in camps, she said.

Terrorism shatters lives

The curse of militancy has jeopardised the lives of Pakistanis, especially residents of tribal areas who saw the war on terror in their homelands, said Zubair Mehsood, a resident of Sararogha Tehsil, South Waziristan.

"Our dreams were shattered and existence changed ... when we left our homes because of terrorism," he told Pakistan Forward.

In the aftermath of militancy, many tribe members battled unemployment, insecurity, uncertainty and inadequate educational facilities for children, he said.

Children suffer the most after witnessing militancy, terrorism and bloodshed and being forced to leave their homeland, Zubair said.

Such issues include dissociation from society, fear and changed mental conditions, which inflict stress and lead to behavioural challenges and other complications, he said.

Sher Rehman, a shoe shiner from the Khawazai area of Mohmand Agency, said his whole family left their ancestral land during the upsurge of militancy.

"Militancy gave us nothing but hopelessness, unemployment, insecurity and dwindling finances, which made it very difficult to make ends meet," he told Pakistan Forward.

"Militancy has subjected most of the children to uncertainty and constant fear, which has transformed their mentality and perspective," he said.

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