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Spotlight on suicide pushes taboos in conservative Iraq

‘LACK OF SENSITIVITY’:The increase in the number of suicide cases is forcing Iraq’s political, religious and media institutions to finally grapple with the problem


A police officer stands on a speedboat while on patrol to prevent people attempting suicide from jumping in the Tigris River in Baghdad on May 10

Photo: AFP

Nada never spoke about her suicide attempts and Ahmad hesitated before sharing his story, but as cases rise in Iraq the taboo issue is being pushed out of the shadows.

Kept from school and sexually abused by her brothers, 24-year-old Nada, who first tried to take her own life at the age of 12, only agreed to speak about her experiences under a pseudonym.

“I didn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said.

Over the next decade, she attempted suicide more than 30 times, either by swallowing pills, cutting or trying to hang herself. Now married to an abusive husband and a mother of two young children, Nada has yet to see a mental health specialist.

“I never told anyone,” she said.

Almost 200 people took their own lives in Iraq in the first four months of this year, according to the government’s Human Rights Commission.

This follows a rise in suicides from 383 in 2016 to 519 last year recorded by parliament’s human rights committee.

The increase in cases, some of which were broadcast on social media, is forcing political, religious and media institutions to grapple with the problem primarily affecting Iraq’s youth, and the real numbers could be even higher, as relatives of those who try to end their lives often refrain from reporting cases to authorities to avoid public shaming.

Suicide is forbidden by Islam — Iraq’s official religion — as well as by minority religions in the nation.

For Ahmad, a 22-year-old from Nasiriyah, south of Baghdad, his family forbidding him to marry the neighborhood girl he loved pushed him to attempt suicide twice using poison.

“I had nothing left but suicide, as my parents don’t understand marrying for love,” he said.

Iraq has been battered by nearly four decades of instability, barely allowing communities to recover from one conflict before being slammed with another. Social pressures and staggering unemployment also play a role.

Among young Iraqis, 17 percent of men and 27 percent of women are out of work, according to the World Bank.

“Suicide has been increasing among adolescents and young adults because they are the most unhappy demographic when it comes to employment, education and care,” said Amal Kobashi, who heads the Iraqi Women’s Network and has followed the issue.

“Until now, there are no real government mechanisms to resolve the reality of this demographic. This could be pushing them to desperation and suicide,” she said.

In recent months, gruesome videos have emerged on social media of young Iraqis broadcasting suicide attempts live, including by hanging, jumping off bridges or using firearms.

Kobashi said they could be cries for help in a nation with few mental health resources and where therapy is still seen as a last resort for people deemed by some as “crazy.”

“Some resorted to social media to bring attention to their situation so people would empathize,” Kobashi said, adding that could ultimately be a “positive” outcome.

An Iraqi mental health specialist, speaking anonymously to discuss sensitive cases, confirmed that she was seeing more young people among her patients.

She suspected that the current period of relative stability meant Iraqis were finally coming to grips with their trauma.

“We spent years just on survival mode, trying to get through terrorism. So now, people are finally starting to pay attention to other social trends,” the specialist said.

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