Earlier in June, fashion designer Kate Spade and chef-extraordinaire turned cultural diplomat Anthony Bourdain took their own lives and caused shock waves across the board. Their consecutive and unexpected suicides were loud reminders of an oftentimes silent anguish that for the most part is unmeasurable and invisible to the eye.
According to the Center for Drug Control (CDC) suicide rates in the United States have risen by nearly 30 percent since 1999 and mental illness is believed to be one of the largest contributors to this matter. However, my intention is not to delve into the catastrophic culture of abuse and over-prescription of anti-depressants in the U.S.; rather, I want to shift the focus to highlight the tragic plight of millions of at-risk people who currently struggle with some level of mental health challenges, trauma, and despair with zero access to adequate healthcare, medication, and worse — the ability to even express or at points comprehend their tumultuous condition and state of mind.
If the rich, the famous, and those with health insurance and high-quality medical care fail to heal these invisible wounds, then how can the people who lack the very basic life-necessities, sense of belonging, and self-worth be expected to lead mentally and emotionally healthy lives amidst terror, anguish, and violence?
The global refugee population is no doubt considered one of the most vulnerable populations in the world. They are ordinary people who have forcefully fled persecution, war, man-made disasters, and human-rights violations. While suicide can be a byproduct of mental health it can also be circumstantial and caused by what ultimately leads to depression, anxiety, and hopelessness — a common trait among some of the world’s most vulnerable people — in this case the refugees.
Two of the most in-need of such groups are the Syrians escaping the now 7-year-long domestic conflict and atrocities of the Islamic State (ISIS), and the incredibly desperate Rohingya Muslims fleeing ethnic-cleansing and mass-persecution in the majority-Buddhist country of Myanmar.
Sabha (refraining from using last name for security purposes) is a 44-year-old mother of four who 2 years ago secretly fled the ISIS-held territory of Minbij, Syria, for Lebanon.
Sitting in a small room in a dark apartment in the outskirts of Beirut — home to hundreds of Syrian refugees living in urban areas — she told me all her children suffer from stress, anxiety, and nightmares.
“ISIS forces would hang decapitated bodies next to our local bakery and every time the children would walk by or we needed bread we would witness such scene,” said Sabha as she explained how her oldest son, Suhail — who was 9-years-old at the time — was forced to bury the heads of the captured bodies. “ISIS forces had no mercy for children; they would force them to watch beheadings and then would force them to bury their body parts — this happened multiple times to Suhail and his friends.”
Oddly enough, Sabha’s children were strangely immune to her re-telling of their plight. Her older son, Suhail, had a peculiarly repetitive pattern of smiling for no reason and her 9-year-old son Lais had a deep gaze that was only amplified by his oddly calm demeanor.
Sabha explained that both her sons had frequent hyperventilation episodes while in Syria and ever since moving to Lebanon all her children have become intensely desensitized and quiet. Sabha, who used to be an art and sewing instructor back home, told me how Lais suffers from severe stomach pain when he eats bread — a condition that during their only doctor visit in Lebanon — was associated with a psychosomatic condition. With no hesitation, Sabha also explained how her husband beats the children and has become incredibly abusive towards them since their move to Lebanon.
Sabha and her family are not unique to such despair; but are poignant examples of the emotional abyss and trauma endured by many refugee families.
Thousands of miles away in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh — home to the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world — a 35-year-old Rohingya refugee mother of eight was sobbing in a small clinic set up by an American charitable organization, Med Global. Harizabegum’s tears were a reflection of her fear of the unknown and the absolute horror she endured back home in Myanmar. In a trembling voice she told me that the Burmese soldiers burnt her house, killed her husband, father, uncle, and brothers in front of her and her children.
Twelve-year-old Shadika was holding her 8-month-old sister as she watched her mother mourn an irrecuperable loss. It was then that the young girl began to silently cry — she was trying hard to hold back her tears, she was very shy — but slowly as she recalled the horrific death of her father she too began to weep.
Shadika is among the thousands of Rohingya children who have lost a parent, or both, and witnessed mentally deranging atrocities that no human being should witness in life. The likelihood of these children remaining untouched by PTSD, psychological wounds, and other symptoms of mental health ailment is quite slim. In addition, these are children and young women who are living in abject poverty next to men who have also endured similar losses, targeted violence, and human rights violations — a fertile environment for abuse toward women.
Among the most common emotional challenges of these refugees are some fundamental impediments that in long-term can harm the individual and the society at large. Based on my reporting from within their camps, communities, and families, I found that aggression, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), hopelessness, and lack of self-worth are all common wounds harming these innocent people.
To my surprise, there has not been much in-depth research on PTSD, mental health challenges, and psychological wounds among the refugee population by large humanitarian organizations and the United Nations. Sure, there have been some reports or articles here and there using small 100 to maximum 1,000 sample populations; but there has not been a global study, response, and approach to adequately and succinctly target and resolve one of the most dangerous and deleterious conditions threatening the global refugee population.
As we all know, suicide can be fed by mental illness but also life circumstances. When one reaches a point, when he or she believes that life is not worth living for, that’s when he or she will become a risk to self but potentially to the society as well — especially in war-stricken and desperate environments where extremist recruitment, financial despair, and sectarian divides are inevitable.
The danger of not healing these invisible wounds and mental health vulnerabilities among the world’s most fragile population is that the wounds will grow into malignant gashes that will soon impact the collective. These gashes in long-term will be much more difficult and expensive to rectify — posing a much greater challenge for future generations to resolve.
Tara Kangarlou is an award-winning journalist who has has written, reported, and produced for CNN, CNN International, NBC Los Angeles, Al Jazeera America, Huffington Post, and Al Monitor. In 2016, she founded Art of Hope a non-profit 501(c)3 organization helping Syrian refugees overcome trauma, PTSD, and psychological wounds. She is currently working on her upcoming book on Iran. To read more of her reports, Click Here Now.
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