Lone clinic in north Syria tack­les war’s men­tal toll

Hor­rors of war leave Syria with psy­cho­log­i­cal scars

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

At an aus­tere men­tal health clinic in north­ern Syria, male pa­tients with shaved heads squat bare­foot in a court­yard, some dressed in uni­forms and oth­ers in T-shirts and track­suit trousers. One man screams at those around him, while another laughs to him­self. A third sings ex­u­ber­antly, ex­pos­ing bare gums miss­ing teeth. The sec­ond floor houses fe­male pa­tients in pat­terned dresses and flowery head­scarves. Some smile at vis­i­tors while oth­ers lie mo­tion­less on their beds. One woman is tied to her bed frame.

The hor­rors of Syria’s six-year war have left the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion with dev­as­tat­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal scars, but staff at the only men­tal health fa­cil­ity in Syria’s op­po­si­tion-held north are do­ing their best to treat those af­fected. Among the pa­tients at the clinic in Azaz, north­ern Aleppo prov­ince, is a 17-year-old girl deeply scarred by the con­flict. “She saw a small child that had been killed and was be­ing eaten by an­i­mals,” Do­rar al-Sobh, one of two doc­tors at the fa­cil­ity, tells AFP.

“She was so shocked she lost her abil­ity to speak. Now she can’t sleep or eat... She avoids every­one.” A male pa­tient from the neigh­bor­ing prov­ince of Raqa came back to his bombed-out home to find the life­less bod­ies of his wife and six chil­dren. “He has dif­fi­culty sleep­ing... he gets flash­backs and night­mares,” says Sobh, 46. Some cases pre­date Syria’s con­flict, but oth­ers-par­tic­u­larly of post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der-have been di­rectly caused by the war. “Of course, we have seen an in­crease in cases, es­pe­cially de­pres­sion, PTSD and cop­ing disor­ders,” Sobh says.

‘Tor­tured and beaten’

Nurse Mo­hammed Mun­zer re­calls re­ceiv­ing pa­tients who had been ar­rested at the peace­ful protests in 2011 that kicked off Syria’s up­ris­ing. “They were tor­tured and beaten, es­pe­cially on the head. They started to have men­tal prob­lems,” the 35-year-old says. Oth­ers have de­vel­oped anx­i­eties re­lated to the re­lent­less bomb­ing and vi­o­lence that has killed more than 330,000 peo­ple. “There are peo­ple who can’t han­dle the sound of air­planes,” Mun­zer says.

The fa­cil­ity serves nearly 140 in­pa­tients as well as oth­ers who come from out­side for care. It was orig­i­nally set up in Masaken Hanano district on the north­east­ern out­skirts of Aleppo city. But it was forced to re­lo­cate when fight­ing broke out af­ter rebels en­tered the city in 2012. “The hos­pi­tal was hit in Masaken Hanano, wound­ing one of the nurses in his hand and hand­i­cap­ping him,” fa­cil­ity ad­min­is­tra­tor Mo­hyid­din Oth­man says. Many of the hos­pi­tal’s med­i­cal staff fled and left pa­tients be­hind, some of them wan­der­ing the streets.

Lo­cal res­i­dents, alarmed by the sit­u­a­tion, con­tacted a Turk­ish med­i­cal NGO that worked with lo­cal Syr­ian doc­tors to trans­fer the pa­tients. By 2013, they had been moved first to a fa­cil­ity in western Aleppo prov­ince, and then to Azaz with help from char­ity group Physi­cians Across Con­ti­nents. While Azaz has been pe­ri­od­i­cally tar­geted by regime strikes, par­tic­u­larly in the early years af­ter the pa­tients were moved to the area, the new hos­pi­tal has not been hit.

That has al­lowed med­i­cal staff to fo­cus on their work, of­fer­ing res­i­dents and out­pa­tients med­i­ca­tion, as­sess­ments and one-on-one treat­ment. At times they strug­gle to help those in need, such as a man who reg­u­larly vis­ited Sobh to seek treat­ment for de­pres­sion.

“I asked him once about sui­cide. He told me he didn’t think about it,” Sobh said. “Fif­teen days later he shot him­self.”

Staff psy­cho­log­i­cally ex­hausted

The hos­pi­tal also faces short­ages of medicine. It re­ceives oc­ca­sional do­na­tions from the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion, but of­ten re­lies on al­ter­na­tives bought on the lo­cal mar­ket or in neigh­bor­ing Turkey. The chal­lenges can feel over­whelm­ing, the fa­cil­ity’s staff say. “We are psy­cho­log­i­cally ex­hausted,” says Sobh. “Some­times our pa­tients hit us or curse us... Some­times we take va­ca­tions to dis­tance our­selves from the at­mos­phere of the hos­pi­tal for a few days.”

The fa­cil­ity’s base­ment is set aside for a kitchen and a cafe­te­ria, where res­i­dents queue for food. Stand­ing at ta­bles or seated on the floor, they eat meals of stew and bread from me­tal bowls. The fa­cil­ity is sparsely fur­nished, with long rows of beds for pa­tients and wash­ing lines hung with blan­kets. In one room, a tele­vi­sion is mounted on the wall, and pa­tients sit to­gether watch­ing. The staff also do out­reach in the com­mu­nity, hop­ing to tackle the stigma around men­tal health is­sues.

“We try to spread aware­ness in our sur­round­ings, and through fly­ers and so­cial me­dia, to ex­plain that peo­ple who have men­tal ill­nesses are like any­one else who is sick,” says Mun­zer. Sobh says the grow­ing need for men­tal health care has caused a sub­tle shift in lo­cal sen­ti­ment. “The pres­ence of a treat­ment cen­tre in this area is pos­i­tive,” he says. “The res­i­dents of the area ac­cept it, and it’s no longer a sign of weak­ness.”—AFP

AZAZ, Syria: Syr­ian pa­tients queue for food ra­tions at a men­tal health clinic in the town of Azaz, near the bor­der with Turkey.—AFP

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Kuwait

© PressReader. All rights reserved.