Ali Nasri, Dhi Qar
Dhi Qar has the highest number of suicides in Iraq, and rising. But a conservative culture makes it a hard topic to discuss openly.
Her mother found her in the nick of time. Janan*, a-17-year-old local in Nasiriyah, had swallowed dozens of pills. She had felt under terrible pressure, Janan said afterwards, explaining her attempted suicide. She was worried her family would force her to marry and that she would fail her exams and wouldn’t be able to graduate.
The teenager’s life was saved at the Al Hussein Educational Hospital in the central Iraqi province of Dhi Qar.
There are many more stories like this in Dhi Qar at the moment. Just in the first half of this year, authorities have recorded over 140 attempted suicides, of which around 40 succeeded in taking their own lives.
For females, there are often societal problems around marriage and relationships. Abeer*, for example, tried to hang herself on the back of a door because she had been divorced and was left with two children to take care of. Conservative society in this area makes it very difficult for a woman alone to make a living. Luckily Abeer’s brother found her in the act and prevented her death.
Locals point out that female suicides are somehow considered more shameful to a family than male suicides, which is why they are hardly ever discussed.
Male suicides feel social pressure differently: Ali Jamil* was a 35-year-old, who had graduated from university, but was forced to sell vegetables for a living because of a lack of jobs in the area. He had wanted to marry, his mother says, but couldn’t because he didn’t have a job and it’s expensive for young Iraqi men to take a wife; they are expected to provide for them and pay a dowry. Jamil drowned after throwing himself off a bridge.
“Two months ago, Dhi Qar had the second highest number of suicides in Iraq,” says Zainab Khalaf, who heads the local committee on children and family, part of the provincial council. “But now we have the highest in the country. The council sees this as a threat to the social order and something that we must address urgently.”
In 2017, there were 70 attempted suicides recorded, with 50 ending in deaths. In 2018, there were 40 deaths by suicide.
Most of the suicides and attempted suicides this year are by people younger than 20, Khalaf added. A special working group has been formed at the council to look into the rash of suicides although it is still a sensitive topic to talk about openly.
One cleric in Nasiriyah, Sabar al-Mohammadawi, has mentioned it in his sermons though. He said that women were often impacted by social pressure and tribal customs that saw them forced to marry inside their own families, for example. For men, it was often poverty, unemployment and social degradation that made them contemplate suicide, he suggested.
Ali al-Nashi, who runs a suicide helpline, agrees, saying that the causes for suicide are often a mixture of all of the above, as well as the lack of any possible help, psychological aid or counselling.
This is a cultural thing, he notes, and nothing like this really exists in Nasiriyah. Al-Nashi believes that drugs and addiction can also play a part in suicides.
Meanwhile, Ibrahim Safah, who heads mental health services at the provincial government’s department of health, believes that the internet could also be playing a part, with how-to videos and other incitements appearing on various social media platforms online. Safah thinks that provincial authorities should be countering this by making their own anti-suicide videos, that offer solutions and hope to the desperate.
*The names of all of the suicides and attempted suicides have been changed.