Yazidi campaigners call for suicide strategy in Iraq after 11 found dead in 10 days

Psychologist laments ‘a cry for help that is not being heard’

German Traumatologist Jan Ilhan Kizilhan speaking to Yazidi refugees on the outskirts of the northern town of Khanike, Iraq, 7 October 2015. The people fled their villages after they were attacked by terrorist militia IS in August 2014 and are now living in an unofficial camp.  PHOTO: STEFANIE JAERKEL/DPA | usage worldwide   (Photo by Stefanie Järkel/picture alliance via Getty Images)
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Yazidi campaigners are urging Iraq to implement a national suicide prevention strategy after 11 genocide survivors killed themselves in 10 days.

Psychologist Dr Jan Ilhan Kizilhan was joined by NGOs, including the UK’s Yazda charity, to call for help for Yazidi survivors.

In January, 11 people took their own lives in a 10-day period, while about 250 Yazidis took their lives in 2020, the majority of them women.

"The genocide of the Yazidis in 2014 by ISIS cost thousands of lives and traumatised the community in the long term," Dr Kizilhan told The National.

Iraqi Yazidi clerics attend the exhumation of a mass-grave of hundreds of Yazidis killed by Islamic State (IS) group militants in the northern Iraqi village of Kojo in Sinjar district on March 15, 2019. - Iraqi authorities exhumed the mass grave in an operation aiming to extract remains and identify victims of an August 2014 massacre of Yazidis by IS fighters as they entered the village of Kojo, during investigations of genocide against the decimated minority. (Photo by Zaid AL-OBEIDI / AFP)
Iraqi Yazidi clerics attend the exhumation of a mass-grave of hundreds of Yazidis killed by ISIS in the northern Iraqi village of Kojo in Sinjar district. AFP

“Life in the refugee camps, the political unsettled perspective for a better life, as well as the economic and social problems – also the restrictions associated with the current Covid-19 pandemic – increase the psychological stress, which is why some people, especially young women, commit suicide.

“The Yazidi have not recovered from the genocide and are facing a break in their community, which is also evident in the increase in suicides. It is a signal, a cry for help that is not being heard. Every suicide is a tragedy and suicides are preventable.”

Dr Kizilhan runs a £1 million ($1.3m) project in Iraq, training psychologists to support survivors.

In 2018, he helped 1,100 Yazidis, including Nobel laureate Nadia Murad, to move to Germany for psychological help.

Dr Kizilhan is now calling on Iraq to address the mental health crisis.

“Urgent action is needed. Unfortunately, suicidality is rarely identified as a major public health problem by governments,” he said.

“In addition to a national strategy to prevent suicide, the Yazidi must be given the opportunity to return to their settlement areas and rebuild. They need political, social, religious and legal status with rights as a distinct group in order to rebuild their country and have hope that they can live in Iraq.

“Currently, mental health professionals and care for the people in the refugee camps are needed to treat the mental illnesses and stresses to decrease the number of suicides. Regional health authorities and NGOs must respond and help now.

“Every single life lost to suicide is one life too many.”

His calls for help were echoed by the Coalition for Just Reparations, an alliance of 27 Iraqi NGOs calling for comprehensive reparations for civilian victims of crimes committed during the ISIS conflict in Iraq. It includes the support of Ms Murad's non-profit organisation, Nadia's Initiative.

“The entire Yazidi population is experiencing mental trauma caused by the acts of genocide, and some are displaying severe psychological difficulties,” the coalition said.

“Among those at heightened risk are the women and girls who experienced systemic sexual violence, and the boys who were forcibly recruited by ISIS.

“We are now seeing the tragic results of the failure to address these warnings. The impact of suicide on families and communities is devastating and long lasting.

“We support the calls for the government of Iraq and the Kurdish regional government to expedite the establishment and implementation of a national suicide prevention strategy.

“The underlying risk factors that lead to suicidal acts must be addressed. This includes bringing ISIS to justice for their crimes and ensuring that survivors receive comprehensive reparations.

“We all have a collective moral responsibility to help survivors of genocide and other atrocity crimes by supporting those struggling with mental illness and by working to prevent suicides. Every life is precious.”

Doctors Without Borders had previously raised the issue of a debilitating mental health crisis among Yazidis in Iraq, including the rising number of suicides.

Last year, exhumation of more than 200 mass graves containing about 12,000 victims of the ISIS genocide of Yazidis began.

The first victims identified are due to be returned to their families for burial.